Unlike the man disappearing before our eyes in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (05), the body in Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada is already cold—and all that’s left is his suit. Puiu’s new feature, his first in Competition at Cannes, centers on a funeral gathering by an extended family in a warren-like Bucharest apartment. The ceremony entails benedictions by a priest, who takes his sweet time arriving, and the symbolic donning of a suit associated with the dearly departed. In and around these rituals, Puiu spins a comic, tense, and often poignant chamber film—where the chambers host hours of prickly conversation and contain multiple generations of hard-won experience stretching back to the Communist era.

FILM COMMENT spoke with Puiu after the world premiere of Sieranevada at Cannes, six years after his saturnine self-starring time-bomb of a film Aurora (10) and over a decade after Lazarescu first planted a flag there for a rebirth in Romanian cinema. 

Sierra Nevada Cristi Puiu

The action takes place nearly entirely within one apartment, and so I was a little puzzled when I read somewhere that the time frame is supposed to be a few days after the Charlie Hebdo shootings.

The precise date is the 10th of January 2015. And I put that in the film: on the radio they are saying, “Tomorrow, there is going to be in Paris the meeting of the heads of state about the terrorist group from September 11th…” But of course it’s in Romanian, so you couldn’t see it.

Was that in the subtitles?

No, it wasn’t. And there are even lots of Romanians who do not get it. You might be surprised by the fact that, 15 years later, some people will talk about 9/11. But I met a lot of people who are talking about 9/11, and it’s a part of the Internet community. For a time, I was looking on the Internet for alternative information regarding all sorts of events, but there’s a problem with this information: you cannot verify it. Now we have this false feeling, false idea, that we know. But to assume you know something, for me, it’s very hard to say that. For example, to say, “I know how to make a film.” I don’t know how to make a film. Every project I am in, I am trying to understand what is happening, why this or that decision… It’s not easy. I can testify about my own experience, but I would never say to others, “I know how to make a film.”

What do you feel you learned with Sieranevada about how to make a film?

You know, I was very down when I started this project. Very down. People had a lot of expectations, and very strange expectations sometimes—expecting something like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, but on a different topic.

And you’re talking about the reaction to Aurora now? 

When Aurora was finished and released, there was a good response from the critics, but nevertheless, there was a big disappointment. Then with this film, I felt so down. And I behaved like somebody who could do anything. I allowed myself to do things I never did before. For example, making significant adjustments to the script while shooting, and allowing the actors to do things that, in normal conditions—it’s not improvising, I was writing down the text from day to day.

At the beginning there was no Croatian girl in the script. And we explained [the character of] Simona: she lost her father some years ago, and she comes from the southern part of Romania. They have this ritual we don’t have in the north, where I come from, with the costume and being the ambassador of the dead.

Sierra Nevada Cristi Puiu

Could you explain that custom a little? 

It’s a Christian ritual, and the idea is that when Jesus died and was buried, when they found an empty tomb, they found his clothes but no body. But the clothes were put in the position of the body. So in this ritual you put the costume in the position of the body, and the guy who’s going to wear it states that there is no death. There is this resurrection. So he’s coming as the dead at the table. The costume is impersonating the father. And this sequence was not in the script. I introduced it into the film while shooting.

What made you feel like you needed to add that sequence?

I think we live in a time when we are following a serious bunch of rituals. The ritual is very present in our lives, even if we are talking about, I don’t know, a birthday. There’s the ritual of the cake and candles. It’s like how we are in Cannes: there is the ritual of the red carpet, and there are the signs of royalty—the red and the gold and the palm.

There’s an aristocratic aspect to things here.

Yeah. So our life is made of rituals and, for me, it was important because I noticed in Romania, the reason people are doing this is that it’s a form of liberation. They need to free themselves. When they have lost a close one, they have to pass through these rituals in order to escape, in order to clean the conscience. As the mother says: “I’m doing this for your father, and when I’m going to die, you are going to do your style or the way you like. Bury me your style.” For me, it’s very touching to see people—to see us—do this. For example, in Romania, there is the red-and-white ribbon for the spring. When I was on the red carpet yesterday, I was wearing the black-and-white ribbon because it was the sign that somebody close to us had died—a colleague of ours who took care of transportation in the company for our film. And the actor who plays Tony in the film died last December.

For me, it’s very touching to see how fragile a human being is. To rely on these rituals, to rely on these things—at a certain point, it scares me because it is so thin.

Is filmmaking a ritual for you in any way?


Sierra Nevada Cristi Puiu

It’s not thin, then—it’s something that’s very rich and open. 

Yes, and I’m trying to do my best in order to stay in contact with life. And then I piss off everybody because I am changing all the time. Well, I can’t help it, because I don’t believe in following the script. I don’t believe in this! I think, when you do this, you are going to get to the point at the end where you come up with a dead body. If you want to stick to the situations of life, they are very unpredictable. And you just have to be aware of this fact, and stay awake, and push the red button to record it. You don’t need to invent metaphors or visuals of huge proportions. I don’t need to make Lord of the Rings 5 in order to tell my story. But I respect the cinema—it is not that I don’t respect it, it’s just not me. The whole process of working on a film is dependent on the situations of life.

The camerawork is so very sensitive to the characters’ situations, but in a different way: you’re holding back and you don’t always force yourself into a scene.

The position of the camera and generally in cinema is the position of the author. It is also the position with which the spectator will identify because we are looking at the story through the lenses of the camera. And when you put the camera in a place, in a space, you ask the actors not to look at the camera. So the actors are there, relating one to another and creating the drama, and you float over the eyes of the DoP and behave like the camera is not there. I mean, it’s quite comic at a certain point that the camera is playing the role of an invisible man or of a dead person. So, this subject of the film allowed me to assume this identity of the camera as being the soul of the dead man. The soul leaves the body and travels for 40 days, and in 40 days, it goes to meet God and be at Judgment. This is the 40 Days of Commemoration, implying how it would be to look at the world you left behind you. Your loved ones are there in order to prepare the commemoration, and the camera has to have a look that’s full of tenderness.

This is what I was telling Barbu [Bălăsoiu], who was shooting the film: pay attention to everyone in front of the camera and try to look at these people not like characters in a movie but like real humans who are going to die one day. You have to keep this in mind: this person is going to die one day. And it is recording his presence here in this world now, more than his or her presence in the film. This is more essential than Shakespeare’s “To be or not to be,” and cinema allows you to do this. But really, to show someone drinking a glass of water: not to show, not to pretend, to do it.

I’m curious about the set you chose, with the kitchen, bedrooms, and other rooms, branching off a central common space where the camera lingers. Is that an actual apartment? 

Yes, it’s one of the biggest kind of apartments you could have in communist times, built during communist times. Three-bedroom apartment, 100 square meters in total. Normally, a three bedroom apartment is 80 square meters in communist times. But the reason why I picked this one and not others is that having the central hall allowed me to imagine the mise en scène as being placed in this sort of maze—which is not quite a maze, but at the apartment level, it can be considered as such. There are lots of histories happening, different planets inside the same apartment. Different stories put together, and the thing is that it allowed me to give body to an event, to reimagine—to put an image to the fact that we are hiding things. There are the doors, they are playing a certain role in the film, and behind the doors, the history… There is a certain dialogue in one room, there is a different dialogue in the other room—you have different history, different problems. Somebody’s crying there, somebody’s laughing here. What I tried to do is just restore the feeling I have regarding this kind of family meeting.

I think it’s enough to put the camera somewhere and start to record. Of course, you have to find the right position for the camera, to record and just to listen to what is happening. Inside the image, you are going to record the whole universe. But you have to find the right position. I don’t really believe in imagining and inventing things. Yes, of course, it’s good to exercise, but it’s an exercise meant to be a part of a training for watching the world and listening to the world.

Sierra Nevada Cristi Puiu

What kind of camera did you use for the shoot? 

A digital camera, Arriflex, and this is a good thing because it allowed me not to do the rehearsals and then shoot. We shot everything, and let them be, and I covered with the camera because it’s a bit of Hell inside this apartment. There are lots of rivalries between actors. And there’s tension because you have a sequence, and somebody’s good, and somebody’s not good. They are going to talk about the one who didn’t succeed in delivering the lines, and then he’s going to be angry and is going to feel uncomfortable in front of his colleagues. A complete mess. I think they did a really great job because you don’t have this on the screen.

Did the actors have different backgrounds—TV, theater, movies?

There’s no such thing in Romania. Everybody, when they study acting, has to study it for theater. And some of them succeed in getting parts in TV dramas and so on. So, no. The problem is that people are different—and if you are paying attention to this, you can get a lot from the actors. If you are not paying attention and you think that you are the most important, you are going to impose your way of thinking and it’s not certain you are going to succeed in your work.

What I am happy with on this project, is—and this was a surprise as well—I thought these people were good when I read the script and the story of this family. All of them good. And when they were bad, they were bad in my style, because I introduced some kind of a reaction which is proper to me. And when we started working, I allowed myself to let the actors add what is proper to them. So, the characters in the film now have completely different colors than in the script. It suddenly became new to me.

I remember talking to a couple of other Romanian directors who were a little frustrated because their movies were received better abroad than at home. How do you feel about that?

I am making films for Romanian audiences. I’m making films with lots of dialogue, and the Romanian language is important and very dear to me, because I grew up in this language, so I can configure the world a little bit better through it. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible. The perception that Romanian audiences are having about the films we are making is not a gentle one. I mean, for a large audience, cinema is American cinema. The Cannes Film Festival helped a lot of Romanian cinema. The history of Romanian cinema—this New Romanian Cinema—has to be told with this festival as a part of it, because the festival made possible this Romanian cinema. This is a fact.