The symbolic is dead, long live the symbolic


Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada starts with an awkwardly composed shot of an SUV carelessly parked in the middle of the street. Lary (Mimi Brănescu) gets off and goes inside a building, leaving his idling vehicle for a minute or so. The camera doesn’t follow him, left behind with the car, blocking traffic. The shot goes on for a few beats too many, in keeping with the realist observational paradigm of the recent Romanian wave in world cinema, which has in Puiu one of its household names. After much insistence, Lary finally comes out of the building and drives off to pick up his wife, Laura (Cătălina Moga), at the corner.

However, despite the duration, the shot offers very little information: the framing is particularly unbalanced and it seems to hide more than it shows – even a slight pan when a truck arrives and the driver starts honking doesn’t reframe enough to show the new character, keeping the one source of action pressed off screen. With little information comes little transformation, and at the end of the scene it’s hard to pinpoint what has changed, if anything at all.

On the one hand, the boldness of this void is the confirmation of a certain stylistic approach to realism that carries the torch internationally lit with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005). On the other, and more importantly, it is also an acknowledgement of the insufficiency of said approach, keeping not only the meaning but also the bulk of the action out of sight, unavailable. In a revisionist move regarding the foundation of his own cinema that echoes the later work of Eduardo Coutinho, Puiu’s deliberate withholding of information seems to be the reason the shot exists, and its pointlessness, its main point. Even though the camera placement provides limited access to anything in front of it, this absence is very revealing about the intentions behind the camera, breaking the fundamental fourth wall that’s thickened by traditional realism. If anything, the shot seems to gravitate toward skepticism at the same time that it affirms the pregnant evidence of reality, creating the strange impression that truth does exist, it just doesn’t belong here.


Whatever’s of importance in Sieranevada paradoxically has no space in the film, and it’s expressive that the plot revisits the central theme of Puiu’s international breakthrough, except this time the man is already dead from the beginning, and kept mostly out of sight. More than in media res, truth hides alibi – elsewhere, as the title’s displaced specificity mysteriously hints at: there’s no allusion whatsoever to it in the film, yet the word “sieranevada” carries an immediate precision – it’s an image anyone can form in their head, using nothing but the suggestive power of the word – that complements the world that’s present on screen. We’ve not only arrived too late; we’ve also arrived at the wrong place. From here, all we can see is the tip of the iceberg, surrounded by the distant afterquakes that ripple away from the original epicenter. What is the language of peripheral resonances? How can this fringe – of action, of politics, of Europe, of world cinema – be established as a new center?

The question is a tricky one, because it requires a replacement (more than a displacement) of one thing for another, and most replacements don’t come without major fitting adjustments. That is the drama of Sieranevada: a family tries to put together a representational ritual to celebrate the death of the patriarch by having someone else play his role. The father – which in many Romance languages carries the subtext of a political leader (“demnitar”, the Romanian word for “statesman”, is a masculine noun), abandoning the nation (“naţiune”, a feminine noun – the mother) at “her” own luck – is not quite an admirable figure, but with death comes forgiveness as well as big shoes to fill. Beyond the benefit of death, the father has one more important thing on his side: he was real. And now that the real one is dead, turned into memory, into representation, it is part of the mourning process to engage on a game of make-believe that, if played out successfully, will allow for an unlikely successor to bloom.


The present is still too early though, and the film will do its best to delay the task. The core of the action – which seems to combine Alfred Hitchcock’s knack for ballooning expectation with Seinfeld’s irreverent centrality of the world’s meaninglessness – circles around a sort of religious theater, where one of the surviving relatives play the part of the deceased man. It’s a classic symbolic relationship – one thing standing for an other, different thing, so that it can mean the same – but the fact that the living are still struggling with who they are makes it harder for them to play someone else. Fiction is not something you claim; it is something you earn.

If the center is a stage, the director will once again mark his position at the fringe: Sieranevada is a movie about the action backstage, the simultaneous changes of clothes, the anxiousness of the moments right before entering the proscenium. Puiu delays the decisive moment with all sorts of accidental detours, from 9/11 conspiracy theories to general family gossip, of which the most synthetic is the pair of pants bought for the ritual being too large for the family member chosen to wear it. In this ritual of representation orchestrated by disparate wills, the two parts – body and spirit – are unfit for each other, and cinema can really only film one of them.


This inadequacy is the nest of all questions: what space can truth find in a world that seems to have separated the Being from the Idea? And what role can rituals play when representation has become either a form of lie – the currency that mediates most of the relationships in the film – or a source of suspicion? – like the lack of brain matter in the footage of the Charlie Hebdo attack, still painfully fresh within the diegetic time of the film. How could anybody believe in the bullshit story Relu (Bogdan Dumitrache) told as a kid, saying he was forced to smoke by an armed man? Still their mother and father did, shamelessly engaging on a whole social spectacle because of it, and now here they are, at the center of the stage, directing everyone else for their own peace of mind (and spirit). And, yet anything but blindly, everybody is willing to play along.

While Lary looks at everyone else from a position of general skepticism, as if the choice to believe could only come from not knowing better, Puiu’s camera seems indecisive, sometimes even out of place. “What if the second coming has already happened and we failed to recognize God?”, asks the priest, and the film seems to be shaken not only by its general suspiciousness about God, faith and the point of all this things we do, but also by the contradictory suspicion that its judgment could just as well be plain-out wrong. Amidst the grand ballet that the family reunion turns into, the camera work is torn between following action, with movements objectively or subjectively motivated by the characters, and a liberty that isn’t charged with enough confidence to actually make a statement. It’s a behavior that, for better or worse, synthesizes the film’s central problem: the desire for a leap of faith isn’t strong enough to escape the pull of reality.

Yet, the unbelievers play along, and that strange willfulness – perhaps cowardice, perhaps respect – seems to acknowledge the gap as well as its inability to jump over it. This irreparable separation between the ideal and its representation, between finding real beauty in transcendence and being completely incapable of transcending, is brought to the surface in a sequence Puiu himself has claimed to be where the whole movie originated. When the camera arrives at the kitchen where the food is being reheated and the funeral is progressively being postponed, two women of very different generations engage on a heated argument about Socialism. The older one speaks fondly of the sacrifices made by the people, still connected to the promise of a utopia (an ideal) that was never fully realized; the younger one speaks of the downfall of the regime, angrily pointing out its contradictions and the general disappointment that burden its offspring. One of them is a believer, the other can’t be, and in some sense both of them are right. That is the tragedy and the beauty of it.

Still, the scene is crucial not only because it highlights the gap between practice and preach, the Being and the Idea, an ideal and its actual representation (every political system is, in essence, a form of aesthetics), but also due to the lively dynamics played by the two women. If, on the one hand, Sieranevada sheds a disenchanted light over disenchanted dreamers, the actual reality of the film is surprisingly lively. Cristi Puiu creates a theatrical symphony of doors, of entrances and exits, of elaborate role-playing, embodied with dignity and wit by the film’s remarkable cast, that defies the gloomy blue light and the overcast interiors. In this family of paranoid, selfish liars who distrust even the fiction they have written for themselves, there is still some kind of drive that feels remarkably alive and truthful in this baroque performance around a dead protagonist that still dictates at what time the living should eat dinner. The grip of symbolism might not be visible, but that doesn’t keep anyone from feeling it pull them by their pant legs.

May the grip remain unacknowledged, then, while we try to keep our pants in place: in this battle between the real and the symbolic, truth becomes not something you believe in, but something you engage with and take part in. It is, in essence, a form of staging. After the opening car sequence, Lary and Laura have an argument about Disney princesses. Lary was supposed to buy a specific costume for their daughter abroad so she could play a character in a school performance, but he found another outfit more beautiful, so he bought that instead – or, just as likely, he, the prototypical contemporary selfish bastard, never paid full attention to his task and did whatever felt more convenient at the time. The problem, Laura says, is not that she won’t look real enough; the problem is that the color of the dress is different and “it will clash with others.”


It’s an interesting statement about not only Puiu’s cinema, but that of the for export generation of Romanian cinema: if reality is too magnetic and the trauma of History is still too recent to allow for the body of Christ to taste as anything but stale bread, it’s the energy and harmony of this secular liturgy that may aspire for some kind of future, some kind of beyond. At the end of the day, it’s the small demonstrations of fearless fictionalization that sets some of these films apart from the counterproductive virtuosity of Laurent Cantet’s Entre Les Murs (2008), for example, and make them still memorable pieces: the bright-colored costumes in Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007); the latent symbolism in the chit-chat Corneliu Porumboiu has with his dad in The Second Game (2014); the deceptively simple mise-en-scène of Radu Muntean’s great Tuesday, After Christmas (2010). While Mungiu’s jumped the gun and taken that aspiration to the point of gimmickry with The Graduation (2016), Puiu’s confident indecision makes this wait a rather fertile and interesting one.

At the end of the day, after the reheated food has been served and everybody’s had their chance to laugh at the funeral, Sieranevada’s answers to its big, fundamental questions are paradoxically both satisfying and insufficient. The richness of the dynamics and the craft of not allowing things “to clash with others” do little to bridge the gap or inhabit the interval which is central to cinema: in an art form where the spirit is the body, it is the dead who laughs last. And while the film charmingly takes the safe way out, gets down on one knee and prays for two Gods, an oversized pair of pants is flown like a flag by those who arrived late, just to realize it is still way too early.


As early as cinema: a man rows a kayak in a beautiful river, hunting for glimpses of birds through binoculars. In the first twenty minutes of The Ornithologist, João Pedro Rodrigues strips his flamboyant, stylized approach to the bones of cinema: the camera is a tool to observe, capture and study the movements of nature.

Fernando (Paul Hamy) is a post-proto-filmmaker of sorts, and the first part of the film – shall we say, its early period – feeds off the desires of early cinema: the scientific film, the pioneering travelogues, the natural beauties catalogued in the single reels commissioned by the Lumière brothers, sharing space with the vaudeville acts, the grand décor of the short theatrical interludes and the early industrial films. It is cinema before documentary was invented, at a time when genres still belonged mostly to theater and literature and no narrative seemed to hold more fascination than the fact that an image could suddenly be presented in motion.

It’s a beautiful beginning precisely because it shows so little of what’s to come. While The Phantom (2000), Two Drifters (2005) and To Die Like a Man (2009) were powerful revamps of fassbinderian melodrama filtered through extremely personal lenses, the observational beginning of The Ornithologist brings to mind The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012), the feature film Rodrigues co-directed with João Rui Guerra da Mata – a frequent collaborator with whom he had already co-directed short films in the past, co-written scripts and whose work as art director has been an integral part of the director’s vision. Unlike his previous films, the 2012 feature combined the structure of a modern travelogue with the disembodied narrated tableaux of Marguerite Duras (India Song; Le Navire Night) and Chantal Akerman (News from Home) using distant observation to retell personal memory as fiction (Sternberg’s 1952 Macao plays a central role in the film). The meaning of the text, one would bet, should manifest in the shadows that the fourth wall projected over the proscenium, reshaping the space with peaks and valleys of light and darkness, generating a third thing that wasn’t solely present in either the sound nor the image. Through shadow play, reality provided its own representation, metonymically revealing the partial through the whole.

But while The Last Time I Saw Macao openly allegorized the lack of matter on screen (a film comprised mostly of disembodied characters) to capture the ambivalent violence of colonialism, and the contradictions between personal and communal history, the film suffered from the absence of the returning gaze, the anchoring point of view that’s always been one of Rodrigues’ most poignant concerns as a filmmaker. It lacked The Last Time Macao Saw Me, a confrontation with the off screen space that up until that point was the highest source of tension in Rodrigues’ cinema.

The Ornithologist, on the other hand, relies solely on matter, on articulating physical actions through montage and point of view to summarize a basic principle of cinema and of life: there’s no such thing as an objective observation. Every film is, in some shape or form, a Western, and every detached description is ultimately just the preamble to the showdown. Hence the sophisticated interplay between shot, point of view (demonstrated by one of the dearest and most self-evident conventions of classic cinema: the binocular shot) and reverse shot, which the editing puts together so that tension can escalate, indicating that the placid nature of that river only tells a fraction of this story.

In typical Rordrigues’ fashion, the film activates this missing gaze from very early on, going as far as using quite literal bird’s eye views that will hold a key position in the film’s later progressions. Fernando is not only a birdwatcher; he’s a creature much like the birds, as the early parallel montage sequence clearly establishes. Rodrigues’ camera follows Paul Hamy like the early cameras followed the timeless birds, trying to crack the code that makes his mere presence something worthy of attention.


Except, it’s not really his physical mobility which is the source of interest here, but a certain interior mystery, a quality that early men of cinema such as Béla Balász and Jean Epstein called photogeny, and which leveled the human face and the natural landscape as equally expressive. Hamy, much like the birds and the mountains and the river, carries a meaning, a feeling, an expression that also lies elsewhere and, not unlike Sieranevada, this elsewhere speaks of here – a replacement of one for another… a play of symbolism.

Yet, “as the notion of photogeny is transferred from face to place, from flesh to building skin or wrinkled desertscape, from racially marked body to film noir” (Emily Apter – Continental Drift: from National Characters to Virtual Subjects), colonialism works both ways, and at some point the over-quoted motto of the great Brazilian filmmaker Humberto Mauro might have crossed the Atlantic: “cinema is waterfall”. As that placid river pushes the kayak down dangerous rapids, the scientist is forced to confront the mystic: Etienne Jules-Marey and Eadwaerd Muybridge learned more than a thing or two about how the natural body worked; yet, they still know nothing about my soul.

With the crash, comes specificity: this isn’t any river, not even an ideal river, an allegory in water. The establishment of place doesn’t come through mere establishing shots – they are still deceitful and misleading, as water often is – but through a sequence of postcard-like photographs: The Ornithologist takes place at El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a route that spreads over Portugal and Spain that has become a holy location for catholic pilgrims from around the globe, heading to the shrine of apostle St. James the Great and the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. This river is not only a mystic one, but physically part of a path known for hosting journeys that are both touristic and spiritual – in other words: a stage for a specific type of ritual of representation, a real life journey of the hero… cinema, in its most conventionally narrative. Once Fernando’s broken kayak is appropriated as a random totemic symbol of worship, the movie, that documentary avant la lettre, has no other choice but to follow the path of cinema itself: accept its fate as an adventure.


What’s fascinating and riveting about The Ornithologist is that it takes the task so literally: once Fernando has been rescued by two Chinese tourists who are planning to castrate him (or better yet, once Fernando’s pills are already long overdue), every new scene in the film holds the promise of the unexpected, taking thrilling sharp turns that incorporate catholic symbolism, sexual explorations, suspenseful murders and a suspicious knack for the sublime. If we live in post-God (in the case of The Ornithologist, quite literally, and with blood in their hands), hyper-aware times, like the heavy-humored mourning in Sieranevada seems to attest, adventure can only come with a meaningful explosion of the norms and a deep exploration of the forms. In a context where cinema has grown more and more content in occupying cultural slots that already exist, it’s refreshing to see a film made with such joy, freedom and despair, with so much respect for what an audience is capable of, and with so much contempt for what they believe their limits are.

With all this freedom, nothing here is the fruit of the randomness of an aimless imagination. At the same time, the film’s symbolism is never static, closer to the representation becoming of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Tsai Ming-liang or Joaquim Pedro de Andrade (brothers in arms, rather than commanders-in-chief) than to the bal masqué of the banal satisfaction coming from decoded allegories which has plagued the work of George Orwell and William Golding, as well as late Kieślowski, the most heavy-handed Bergman phases, the most misguided Truffaut, and Jodoroswky in his most esoteric. What’s in the center, here, is the tension between personal identity and collective determination, which manifests in the permeability between spiritual desire, ritualistic practice and physical nature: Jesus drinking milk straight from a goat’s teat; an orgastic baptism in piss; a dog casually licking off the holy blood; an open wound that is like a sexual provocation, like a sex scene is later reenacted as a stabbing scene, with the very same characters.

Due to its unmediated use of symbolism that borrows from catholic mythology, The Ornithologist allows all sorts of religious readings, from the pious to the pagan. Although religion is indeed central to the film – as it was in Rosselini’s Viaggio a Italia (1954), as part of cultural dirt in which the film lays its anchor – the eyes seem to aim at a different kind of beyond.


Towards the end, Fernando starts being followed (or so he believes) by a dove. The editing cuts to the POV of the bird, and instead of Paul Hamy it sees João Pedro Rodrigues himself (who already lent his voice to the main character in the Portuguese dialogues), shattering another wall of representation, actualizing cinema as a Western of transcendence, a showdown that sees beyond the flash, the lost sense of identity of the burnt fingerprints, the holes that replace the eyes in a photograph… a duel that aims past the camera. In The Ornithologist, Saint Anthony is also a means to another end, as if Stalker (1979) could only find redemption in self-irony.

This very same irony is its salvation and its ruin: were it not for the scheduled medication, perhaps Fernando had already turned into Saint Anthony, like Saint Anthony himself – once baptized Fernando – did, transcending history and identity, surviving his own shipwrecks. The Ornithologist doesn’t neutralize the contradictions of its task; but once you’re in the boat heading toward the fall, turning back is never really an option. In the words of Clement Greenberg, what’s at stake then is making “present live up to the past”, reality live up to its own mythology, Europe live up to its history (the border region of the film alludes to the Tordesilhas Treaty, which once divided the newfound lands between Spain and Portugal, tying religion, tourism and colonialism in Portuguese identity), an artist to live up to their aspirations (and duties) and cinema live up to its vocation to collapse and reconfigure an experience of the world which is itself uncanny, messy and profoundly contradictory.

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