by Tony Dayoub
Romanian director Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) returns to the New York Film Festival with the mesmerizing mystery, Aurora. It is my favorite kind of film, one in which the narrative emerges slowly over the course of the film. Beginning as a character study focusing on metallurgical engineer Viorel (played by Puiu), the film unfolds in lengthy scenes often consisting of only one or two long takes. The viewer learns Viorel's rather dull routine starting with his early morning tryst with Gina (Clara Voda)—who appears to be married—then following him to work, listening in as he asks a coworker to return money he had borrowed from Viorel, and back home where he is remodeling his apartment. But what seems a series of activities almost too commonplace to endure for a nearly three-hour film soon becomes something more.
It doesn't do so right away. One doesn't begin to understand what Aurora is about until a third of the way in. But surprising though the moment of discovery may be, there are ominous clues early on that something is off. Maybe it is Gina's allusion to the part in Little Red Riding Hood in which the Wolf eats Grandma in order to disguise herself in her attire, casually speaking about it in relation to something her daughter said, only to be met with Viorel's dense response, "I don't understand." Or maybe it is the strange detour Viorel takes on his way to work from Gina's house, stopping to spy on a mother walking her daughter to school before sneaking away, afraid to be seen. Or maybe it is his secretive purchase of some ammunition from a co-wroker. The measured pace in which Puiu tells Aurora's story lulls the viewer into a semi-hypnotic state of passivity which causes us to miss these portents. Following Viorel through the ins and outs of his day, present for every mundane instance—from his searching for something in an office drawer to his taking a shower at his deconstructed flat where he realizes a stain in the ceiling means water is leaking from somewhere up above the apartment—the camera's closeness to its subject perpetuates a sense of self-identification with the quiet man as one recognizes some of his odd habits are our own.
So it is quite jarring when Viorel, the only character in Aurora who we know quite intimately, enters a parking structure at a hotel, waits and stalks a couple who walks out from the elevator, and shoots them at point blank range with a shotgun. In an instant, Puiu reminds us that no matter how well we may think we know this person, we really don't know him at all. From this point on, the film starts working on another level—one fraught with tension and suspense as we try to glean some tidbit of knowledge that will inform us what his motives were and are—even though the pace is still glacial. Was this killing random? Is it the first of a series? Why is he still spying on the woman and child from earlier in the film and how do they fit in? Every detail we skimmed over earlier becomes one of import as we try to figure Viorel out.
Puiu's performance subtly shifts after the murders also. The timid passive aggressive man we observed earlier starts to take on a threatening countenance as he continues about his routine undeterred. With no punishment over the horizon, Viorel grows more assertive, more impatient, more demanding of those around him. Something which would have seemed innocent earlier—Viorel picking up his daughter from school and taking her to his mother's—becomes cause for concern. Is he planning a grand murder-suicide?
The almost comical conclusion of Aurora finally informs us what incited his violence, something as reasonable as that kind of thing can be to a man who has lost the tight control he once had over his life. However, what you'll be struck by is the banality of such horror and its punishment. And when Viorel says with some finality, "You say you understand, but I don't think you understand," he may well be right.
Aurora is playing at the 48th New York Film Festival at 5 p.m. Sunday, October 3rd, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 875-5050