Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s follow-up to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a bleak comedy following a dying man from hospital to hospital, is in some ways an even tougher movie. Aurora, shown in the 2010 New York Film Festival, is a continuous search for meaning—a murder mystery, shot vérité-style, in which, for most of its three-hour running time, the only “known known” is the killer’s identity. Add another “known”: This lanky, unhappy-looking fellow, present in nearly every shot, is played by the director himself.
For Aurora’s first hour, the protagonist haunts the outskirts of Bucharest, engaging in all manner of furtive, enigmatic behavior, sometimes repeated and often in real-time. The mode is observational. (The director has cited Fred Wiseman and the Dardenne brothers as models.) Puiu’s expression rarely changes; he never quite understands what anyone says to him. The people he encounters are unidentified, and his relationship to them is not immediately apparent. Moreover, the compositions are frequently underlit or obstructed, and the depth of field is narrow. Given the near-total absence of establishing shots and abundance of seeming non sequiturs, the viewer is under constant pressure to think backward and puzzle out just WTF is going on. Of course, living in the moment does become easier once the protag purchases a gun.
Ionesco meets Jim Thompson: Moving from total frustration to extreme tension, Aurora could be as confounding an experience as L’Avventura seemed in 1960. (Its impact is already evident on the international film culture: Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s epic, epistemological policier Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, arguably the most challenging movie shown in competition in May at Cannes, seems to have assimilated something of Puiu’s method.) As I noted when Aurora had a reprise screening here as part of a Romanian film festival, the movie is less a psychological case study than a philosophical treatise—or better, it’s case study as philosophical treatise.
A movie in which every look is an accusation, Aurora evokes a number of ideas tossed off in the lengthy “Existence of Others” section of Sartre’s Being and Nothingness. Specifically, the killer’s actions and affect embody that “shame of self” that Sartre attributes to the disconcerting recognition that we are “the object which the Other is looking at and judging.” Aurora makes a spectacle out of this dawning realization as the hyper-vigilant audience ponders the filmmaker looking at the protagonist who also just happens to be himself.
The recent debate in the New York Times “Arts and Leisure” section and elsewhere regarding so-called difficult movies has been largely predicated on subjective notions of “pleasure” and “boredom.” Is Aurora an example of celluloid spinach? Obviously, it’s not for everyone. Call it a mental workout that (although considerably less arduous than reading Sartre) some might find exhausting and others exhilarating. Aurora is not a movie to make you glad that you exist; it’s a movie that makes you aware that you do.