Sieranevada Cannes review: ample food for thought amid all the long takes

Despite some inevitable longeurs during its defiant three-hour running time, Cristi Puiu follow-up to The Death of Mister Lazarescu remains gripping and amusing

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Director: Cristi Puiu
Cert: Club
Genre: Drama
Starring: Mimi Brănescu, Judith State, Bogdan Dumitrache, Dana Dogaru, Sorin Medeleni, Ana Ciontea, Rolando Matsangos, Cătălina Moga
Running Time: 2 hrs 53 mins

On paper, the latest film from Cristi Puiu, Romanian director of the much-admired The Death of Mister Lazarescu, looks to touch on many familiar tropes from cinema and fiction. How many Irish novels deal with a discordant family squabbling unhappily at a funeral? The comical attempts to hide embarrassments from the visiting priest suggest a 1970s British sitcom.

Puiu is, of course, up to something rather different. Employing long, long takes from a camera that, without moving its feet, swivels to follow the conversation, the director makes the viewer a passive witness to everyday psychoses. One occasionally feels embarrassed to intrude. Inevitable longeurs set in over the film’s defiant three hours. But the end result is gripping and amusing.

Forty days after the death of Emil, a middle-class patriarch, we gather for a traditional celebration that – if I understand it correctly – requires a family member to stand in for the dead man at dinner.

We focus most closely on Lary (Mimi Br?nescu), a middle-aged son, who seems alternately amused and appalled by the chaos that descends. A doctor now selling medical equipment for a living, he is married to the well-coiffed Sandra (Judith State), who, initially presented as a bit of a shrew, is later revealed to be among the least hung-up of the bunch.


One younger relative is an obsessive conspiracy theorist. The deceased’s brother turns out to be a serial philanderer and, like so many proud rogues, a sentimentalist who really loves his misused wife. And so on in ways that will be familiar to anybody who’s ever had a family.

Early on, a granddaughter inexplicably brings home a drunk Croatian friend, whose vomiting presence threatens to embarrass the clan in front of the priest. The camera, still rooted, fails to reveal what goes on behind the closed door.

More than a few critics described Lazarescu as a "black comedy". The bafflingly titled Sieranevada is something else. Let's call it a brown comedy. Most of the disputes (though not all) are depicted as storms in proverbial teacups that distract from greater, unspoken traumas. Lary remains stoic until forced to address some of those damaging lies.

Domestic viewers will enjoy the details of Romanian life. The food doesn't look particularly enticing – wet polenta is slopped beside cabbage rolls like so much yellow gruel – but the eccentricities of the ceremony will seem quietly exotic to most of us. Sieranevada emerges, for all that, as the kind of tale that, working with greater concision, John McGahern might have savoured.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist