The Romanian New Wave has yielded its share of stark, clinical masterpieces (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” for one) and also a few loosely metaphysical mind-bogglers (“Police, Adjective” for another). Chalk up Cristi Puiu’s “Aurora” somewhere between the two. It is the latter-day answer to Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” (1975) as an exercise in testing the audience’s patience through objective experience. Puiu seeks to refute all our expectations of crime cinema and to remind us how inadequate that genre‘s structure is. In doing so, “Aurora” becomes unsolvable. Be warned: It is a slow, sometimes excruciating three hours. The monotony of the film’s first hour primes us for everything it will contradict in the remaining two.
There are no doubt are glimmers, but glimmers only, of a plot in “Aurora.” Factory-worker Viorel (played by Puiu himself), whose name we don’t learn until halfway through, carries out a premeditated crime. He purchases firing pins, loads a gun, waits furtively at a stoplight as the turn signal clicks. Soon, four people are killed. More shots than that are fired. His motivation seems to come from somewhere within. But Puiu’s camera is so committed to remaining objective that the rationale is never revealed. “Aurora” kind of makes us feel as if we don’t deserve that satisfaction anyway.
Puiu understands the power of allusion, and not just allusion to his countrymen but also to cinematic tradition. He shares Antonioni’s interest in industrial wastelands as a metonym for the soul. Yet these stark landscapes are also a metonym for this sort of cold, calculated film, even as it so ambitiously attempts to dodge calculations.
Though “Aurora” occasionally achieves greatness, something is missing here: that magical feeling of everything coming into place that makes cinephiles’ hearts beat, that arresting undertow of narrative structure that compels us, no matter how slowly events unfold onscreen. There is a good deal of minutia on display in “Aurora,” and whether it’s simply intended as part of the background or as a distracting red herring is unclear. In focusing on so many little details — potato-peeling, tenant troubles, a strange trip to a clothing store left unexplained — Puiu begs our scrutiny, our utmost attention yet he never delivers or follows through with what he seems to be foreshadowing.
Two abrupt moments of cold violence, among equally phlegmatic settings, puncture the calm waters of “Aurora.” Yes, they are shocking. They command our attention like a heavy book dropped in a sleepy lecture hall. Like Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” Puiu frames Romania in a dystopian milieu, an over-industrialized trash heap where man is forced to act on his own to assert his individuality amid a world still ravaged by post-totalitarian dregs. Viorel lives in a tenement-like flat, with stripped walls and exposed drywall. The film has no soundtrack save the industrial whir of engines, machines, cars, Muzak — the sounds of industry pumping in. Such nimble production effectively places us in a displaced, depressed place.
Puiu directed “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” in 2005 and it is the blackest of black comedies, but it has a winning sense of humor nonetheless. “Aurora” does not share this disposition and is, instead, gravely serious. Puiu is a better actor than director, lending Viorel a muted sociopathy and also a sense of the everyman.
Ultimately, “Aurora” is as half-baked as any of the crime movies it attempts to debunk. Paradoxically, there is some inexplicable wonder in it that I can’t explain. It is a feeling from within, but a feeling as unmotivated and unresolved as Viorel’s own.
Ryan Lattanzio is the lead film critic.