Cristi Puiu: Slow and Surreal Cinema

Romanian film director Cristi Puiu turns 52 today. With his first feature film, Stuff and Dough (2001), Cristi Puiu established a new visual grammar that became the representative style of the New Wave and identified him as the leading figure of the movement.

Cristi Puiu: Slow and Surreal Cinema Cristi Puiu: Slow and Surreal Cinema Source : Amazon

Puiu's style has been discussed as that which follows the ‘aesthetics of observational documentary' thus practising a certain kind of documentary film-making where the unrestricted, moving camera, freed from the tripod, enables the director to gain access to the inner world of the characters and the reality of life. The handheld camera and the deep observational technique refer to Puiu's preoccupation with reality that is to depict everyday happenings in their absolute duration and spatial coherence. The minimalist techniques-the recurrent use of long shots, the scrutiny of everyday and often non-spectacular details and the refusal to use non-diegetic music-thus serve the spatial-temporal unity and the realist concept of the narratives that picture the socio-political situation of contemporary Romania.

In Stuff and Dough, Puiu scrutinises the corrupt atmosphere of the country, in his later productions he turns towards an inner, psychological analysis of interpersonal encounters that he already touched upon in his short film Cigarettes and Coffee (2004). Besides the thematic analogy, Puiu's first short already shows similarities with his feature films in the way it composes the pro-filmic and screen space in order to create a claustrophobic atmosphere.

Cigarettes and Coffee narrates the encounter of a father and son who spend 12 minutes sitting in a café. During the session, the elder man talks about his misery of having been fired after 30 years of work and how he now needs a two-year job to claim his retirement pension. During their conversation, the son sits and eats calmly. Later, he offers his father the option to work as a night guard, which surprises the elder man as he was a truck driver for decades. Still, he accepts the son's proposition and promises to wait for his call at home. In the end, after paying for the bill, the young man gives some cash to the father and they both leave the place.

The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu (2005) institutionalised the panoptic schema by moving out of the microraion and choosing the hospitals of Bucharest as main locations. As if going back into the socialist era, Puiu portrays the healthcare and hospital system of Romania as a Repressive State Apparatus that functions by the despotism of negligent doctors who practice their superior position by verbal violence and carelessness towards their patients and colleagues. The oppressive atmosphere penetrates the film's every location and creates an authoritarian spatial constellation where the camera functions as an observer that records the misery of the sexagenarian, retired and alcoholic Lăzărescu Dante Remus (Ion Fiscutianu), who, without being properly examined and medicated, is carried from one hospital to another.

In Lăzărescu, the space of the locations is ruled by the oppressive state power and its practitioners, the doctors, which is illustrated on both the thematic as well as the representational level of the film. Hence, like that of Aurora, the spatial structure of The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu is based on narrow, prefabricated interiors and cramped corridors, while the camera takes an even stronger presence in the narrative by maximalising the jittery camera work and wobbling takes that dominate Aurora. In Lăzărescu, the handheld camera mirrors a much greater instability that is its immobility and shaking movements that often disturb the flow of the narrative and spatio-temporal continuity, and, together with the vertical stratification of the diegetic space, the camera takes on a panoptic quality that recaptures the surveillance structure of the socialist past.

Lăzărescu depicts the hospital as an oppressed territory that functions according to a fixed hierarchy where patients and nurses stand on the bottom level of the ladder while doctors supervise and humiliate them from above. The intermedial reference to the films of Tatos and Pintilie thus alludes to the indifferent authoritarian structure of the healthcare system whose institutions, the hospitals, serve as places where state power is centralised. In this regard, Puiu's Lăzărescu does not differentiate between the socialist and the capitalist system but evokes the abuses of the previous regime and puts them into a contemporary context by exchanging the character of Mitica with that of Mioara. The aesthetic and thematic overlap between the films of the elder film-making generation and that of Puiu's thus demonstrates the uniformity of-and the politico-social continuity between-the socialist and the post-transitional leadership of Romania.

Both sad and darkly funny, the film is so sharply conceived and richly populated that it often registers like a Frederick Wiseman documentary, even though everything is scripted and every part played by a professional. There's something about Fiscuteanu's quietly desperate performance (with much of the emotion conveyed through his eyes), that gets under your skin. It is a tour de force of cinema verite with astonishing performances by a huge cast of small players. A stunner, so hypnotic that the length hardly matters. By recording this all too commonplace and dehumanizing process, Puiu's film shows the sick old man and the strangers who deal with him to be all too human -- extraordinarily so. It takes a while to adjust to its rhythm, it is a rich, strange and weirdly gratifying odyssey. A mordant parable of and about our time as well as a poem of personal urban decay. And it haunts you like the ghost of any dead person you've ever ignored.

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Reference: Anna Batori - Space in Romanian and Hungarian Cinema-Palgrave (2018)

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