★★★★☆Following past appearances in the Quinzaine and Un Certain Regard sidebars, Romanian director Cristi Puiu returns to Cannes in competition with Sieranevada, a tragi-comedy that interweaves politics, closely observed family dynamics and a heightening sense of farce. What emerges is as rich, thick and various as the funeral feast that's prepared but endlessly deferred. We open in modern day Bucharest with a protracted problem about double parking which blends into issues of parenthood and relations in general.
Lary (Mimi Branescu) is a doctor attending, with his argumentative wife, the wake of his father. In his mother's apartment a whole array of friends and family await the priest for the orthodox ritual which will allow them to begin eating the funeral meal. The food has been prepared and a suit laid out but the priest is delayed and so we have time to hear the arguments of the young cousin Sebi (Marin Grigore) who, with the recent news of Charlie Hebdo, is spouting his conspiracy theories which range from 9/11 to Fukushima. Aunt Ofelia (Ana Ciontena) is having a crisis with her unfaithful husband Tony (Sorin Medeleni) and her daughter Cami (Ilona Brezoianu) has just brought home a Croatian drug addict who collapses in the other room. Meanwhile, Lary's sister Sandra (Judith State) and his soldier brother Relu (Bogdan Dumitrache) do their best to pay their respects to their father while at the same time contributing their own little slices of ordinary madness to the mix.
All the while, the matriarch (Dana Dogaru) does her best to send her husband Emile to the afterlife with all his sins forgiven. Nothing is explained, with the audience an uninvited guest - or perhaps a spectre - eavesdropping on the scandals revealed, the secrets confessed and the arguments that range from Communist history to the best way to fix trousers. Puiu keeps his takes long with the camera placed principally in the hallway where it can best scan the proceedings from the smoky kitchen to the dining room, the bathroom that always seems to be occupied and the various entrances and exits that begin to play out like a symphonic French farce. Doors open and close but importantly never slam, no matter how much the characters simmer with unspoken - or spoken - resentments.
Cinematographer Barbu Balasoiu keeps the different locales distinct and has a keen eye to pick out the changing light from one room to another. There are many moments when the humour is tinged with desperate sadness and a late sortie outside the flat initially promises to break the claustrophobia and provide some relief, but only ultimately serves to reveal that Bucharest - and perhaps Romania as a whole - is one large dysfunctional family. Perhaps most pleasing about Sieranevada is its generosity. There's a feast to be had, arguments to be taken seriously and stifled laughter to be shared, in the way a family can only share it and stifle it at exactly the same time. At almost three hours, Puiu's latest is as long as most family events are, but the observations made are brilliantly bright and there is love here, after all.
The 69th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 11-22 May 2016. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty