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‘Aurora’: A Killer’s Progress, In Real Time

Filed by KOSU News in Art & Life.
June 28, 2011

The Romanian New Wave will never attract audiences on the scale of those who rally to American 3-D flicks. But Romanian director Cristi Puiu’s Aurora is far more immersive than Hollywood’s notion of three-dimensionality. Simply through adroit camera placement, the filmmaker pulls viewers into his tale of a man’s preparations for homicide.

Yes, Aurora is a sort of murder mystery, which promises more thrills than such previous Romanian award-winners as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or Puiu’s own The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. But the movie’s excitement is purely artistic, not visceral. This is another Romanian exercise in slo-mo naturalism, using such now-familiar elements as long takes, industrial hues, handheld camera and scenes that unfold in real time.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that the movie’s central character, played by the director himself, is about to kill. It would be more intrusive to mention the character’s name, which the film divulges long after it shows the guy assemble his arsenal: two shotguns and a handmade firing pin, the latter acquired at a metals manufacturer where the man — all right, his name is Viorel — apparently used to work.

Observing its protagonist during an approximately 36-hour period, Aurora slowly accrues details. The cranky yet self-controlled Viorel is divorced, with two small daughters who are in his wife’s custody. He has a lover who seems to be married, and who also has a young daughter. He doesn’t much care for his stepfather and his former in-laws, as well as someone else who won’t be identified until well after he’s slain.

Like Police, Adjective, another terse recent Romanian festival sensation, Aurora spends much of its time following someone who’s following someone, and ends in a police station. Between surveillance sorties, Viorel eats, watches TV and supervises the renovation of an apartment he’s probably not going to need.

Puiu makes the viewer highly conscious of viewing by putting the camera at a distance, often outside a door. It’s the vantage point of a person who has seen something happening nearby and can’t figure out exactly what it is, but is sufficiently intrigued to keep watching.

Stranger’s stories that play out at such a distance can be easily misinterpreted. Even after Viorel finally decides to explain himself, he wonders if his listeners get it. “You seem to think you understand,” he muses. “I don’t know if you understand.”

Although the movie’s been shortened by eight minutes since its 2010 Cannes Film Festival debut, the almost-three-hour Aurora is far from zippy. It should appeal to moviegoers who like to marinate in a distinctive vision — and not at all to those who prefer films to move faster than real life.

While Aurora is a formal triumph, it’s less resonant than either 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days or The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. Those films used their austere methods to depict people trapped by larger forces: malignant Romanian communism and that country’s callous health care system, respectively. If those films were hard to watch, that suited events that were hard to live.

Viorel is a different sort of character. Played by Puiu with intense conviction, the man is freer to make decisions, however inevitable he may consider his actions. That’s why Aurora’s severe approach to storytelling, assured as it is, finally seems more a matter of style than essence. [Copyright 2011 National Public Radio]

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