Cristi Puiu, the Romanian director of the excellent The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, wrote, directed and is the star of his new film, Aurora, which is three hours long (impish provocateur that he is, he said after the screening that it should have been six hours long). If it weren't three hours, it would probably have been another masterpiece, and if you muster the patience to sit through the interminable first hour, you will be amply rewarded, for he is a deeply intelligent filmmaker. But you will need to wait for him to set up his enigmatic story by introducing all the characters related to the protagonist without a word of exposition. This is not a whodunnit but a "whydunnit". And it takes forever to find out. The movie starts with the main character in bed with a woman who is crying. She goes to the bathroom and the camera lingers for what seems to be an eternity on him scratching his arm in almost total darkness (oh those pesky, gloomy Eastern European films). We don't know if she is the wife or a lover but through hints in the action we kind of figure it out. The first third of the movie is frustratingly slow and deliberately opaque, though Puiu later protested to the audience that he was not concealing anything, but revealing, and he kind of has a point.
For an hour we see this taciturn man drive around, stalk a house, sit around, hatch a plan to use a rifle. We don't know why, or against whom. It is almost a silent film and he seems like a useless bungler, a sad sack. But then something finally happens. The way Puiu builds tension is by starting out with an action that obviously creates suspense, then he meanders around for far longer than he should until you get comfortable with the meandering and when you least expect it, it happens.
Most of the violence in this film is off camera, and it is deeply shocking.
In the second act, we realize that this man is seething with repressed rage. Our entire perception of his character changes, as more is revealed about the people who surround him, and he becomes a much more menacing figure. The movie picks up and the scenes are now alive with action. Just don't expect Jean Claude Van Damme.
Because of the nature of the film I can barely talk about it without revealing stuff you should not know. You are supposed to be in the dark making conjectures about relationships and motives, and then little by little Puiu reveals what the connections are and the movie grows richer as we discover the threads that lead this man to act like he does. Puiu is a master of the mise en scene. He crams in one roaming shot, without coverage or cuts, an enormous amount of information and opinion about the characters, their country, their culture, and his own darkly comic frustration with the way things are. He is a pitch dark observer of the little cruelties of every day, of the lack of human tact and empathy, and of years of national malaise.
Puiu said after the screening that he objects to the way violence is portrayed in films, as if it was something extraordinary that is far removed from our day to day life. He claims we are surrounded by violence in real life and said he wanted to make a film about how anyone can harbor violence without depicting violence for thrills, but as a brutal, human act. Aurora depicts different degrees of violence, from the verbal abuse by parents of a mischievous child, to the indifference about the feelings of others, to murder. I am the last person to have patience for arty movies of self-indulgent length, but the more I think about Aurora, the more deeply it resonates and the more I admire it. I simply can't shake it off.