Cinema Guild // 2011 // 181 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // January 10th, 2012
"I sought to reconstruct the act of killing by depicting the dark side of people I see every day: people who have never committed a murder." -- director Cristi Puiu
The past few years have brought a whole new generation of Romanian filmmakers into the light of world cinema. Directors such as Christian Mungio (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Corneliu Porumboiu (Police, Adjective), and Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) have won rightful acclaim with their realistic tales of struggling in a modern Romania. After Lazarescu, a great film itself, Puiu returns with his second great film, a long and slow burning thriller that looks not at who perpetrated a murder, but how it happened.
Viorel (Puiu) is a divorced machine engineer who you can count on being at one of three places: the factory he works for, his apartment with his daughter, or with his girlfriend. As he acquires a pair of firing pins and a few other pieces to construct a double-barreled shotgun, it becomes clear that he has other plans.
The events that occur in Aurora happen so slowly that it's easy to wonder whether anything will happen at all, but that's the trick of Cristi Puiu's second film. It lulls the viewer into a sense that absolutely nothing may happen at all and, when the dramatic moments finally do, they become all the more effective. Make no mistake; Aurora feels every one of its 180 minutes, but by building up the tension so slowly, Puiu is able to release it in ways that count. It's extremely interesting to watch the first time, but given the number of little things that occur, even more intriguing for future viewing.
While we don't even learn his name until over two hours have passed, Aurora is really a character study of Viorel as much as it is a mystery or a thriller. There are moments of violence and a few murders, but there's no mystery in that. We watch him do it and watch the lead up to each; the mystery lies in how it happens and what has happened to cause Viorel to commit such acts. Viorel seems like a very average person, which I suspect is part of the point. His troubles are very much like the other citizens of Bucharest that he interacts with and, for a while, it seems like the whole thing is going to be about the life of a factory worker. In a sense, I suppose, it is, but this factory man has an agenda, one that never really becomes perfectly clear, but he's committed to it. There are plenty of times during the film that I genuinely wondered what the heck was going on, but as we start to get answers, the power of the film becomes clear.
There's an incredible realism in the story (and not just how slow it is), but especially in Puiu's performance. Through ninety percent of Aurora, he is the only person onscreen and the only one we've formally met, but Puiu holds the audience tightly on both sides of the camera. The incremental changes in the character's face as the story moves along match the changes that occur in the plot, subtle as they are. As Viorel gets closer to an act that, it becomes clear, has long ago been premeditated, every action becomes increasingly sinister, even if he's just taking his daughter to a babysitter. At a certain point, it becomes impossible to distinguish between a normal act and an evil one, and that ultimately becomes Puiu's point as the director. We know who committed these murders and we know how they were perpetrated. The mystery here is why, which is something that regular, non-murderous people can never fully understand, and Aurora doesn't have the answer, either. That doesn't diminish the story; it makes the film. This is the kind of character study that doesn't need pure hard answers to explain itself. It's not that kind of mystery.
From Cinema Guild, the disc for Aurora is acceptable, but not great. The standard definition 1.851: anamorphic widescreen image accurately represents the realistic, on-the-street style of the film, but that doesn't mean it looks good. While not a terrible transfer, it is lacking detail and sharpness. The black levels in the many dark interiors are generally strong, but the brighter scenes are where it really suffers. There is some aliasing, which becomes immediately apparent in the opening credits as they are virtually unreadable. The DVD has the lo-fi look that I'm sure the director intended, but it comes across as less than impressive. The sound is quite a bit better, though not perfect. The Dolby 5.1 surround and 2.0 stereo mixes are fairly close in quality; nice and clean with good effects and clear dialogue. There's a bit more punch in the surround track, especially in those rare moments of action which can be quite jarring.
There are only two extras on this release. The first is Puiu's 2004 short film Cigarettes and Coffee, excellent piece showing how much early talent Puiu displayed. The second is a trailer.
Aurora has moments of absolute brilliance that cannot be overstated. Puiu's direction and performance perfectly build the film's drama and make it tense and engrossing. The extended running time may be unnecessary, given the amount of actual action in the film, but the overall effect is very sound. It deserves a better DVD release, but I'm just happy that it has received distribution at all. Definitely recommended to fans of international cinema.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Cinema Guild
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Romanian)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Romanian)
Running Time: 181 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Short Film
* IMDb: Aurora
* IMDb: Cigarettes and Coffee