Cristi Puiu's films have always had socio-political implications. If The Death of Mr Lăzărescu (2005) was about the health system (political), and Sieranevada (2016) perfectly captured the little idiosyncrasies of a Romanian family (social), then MMXX (2023) is at the intersection of the two. Equally social and political, MMXX exploits both the personal relationships of Oana, a visibly exhausted therapist, and her close ones, and the intensely political (and politicised) situation of the pandemic. The result is a film that is jarring and understated, mesmerizing and chaotic, often funny, and more often difficult.
Let's start with the 'elephant in the room', namely the status of pandemic film. MMXX is closely related to safety measures, quarantine, and other “clichés”, both in title (2020 in Roman numerals) and content. This fixation is, to some extent, confusing - the first three stories of the film can be entirely separated from COVID-19, save for some fine details or easily replaceable conventions. Still, the pandemic seems to serve as a starting point, a track from which the screenplay can be guided on easily outlined premises, for instance “what could one talk about during a COVID test?” or “how do people at home perceive a birth with pandemic complications?”. In absolute terms, these are promising, but the pandemic, especially in the context of a director with public statements about it, cannot be viewed in absolute, and some slippages are glaring. For example, the insertion of a deliberately subtle dialogue about “perfect slaves” and human rights during a COVID test is blatant.
Beyond the pandemic, there's a deeply personal side to MMXX, more so than anywhere else in Cristi Puiu's films. From opinions on the pandemic, the individual's place in the world, film, the fetishization of Marilyn Monroe, Bucharest - all seem to reflect an authorial voice, due in part to open, direct (but more refined than in Malmkrog) contemplations. This new warmth enhances the otherwise disjointed narrative and concludes the aesthetic choices, making MMXX perhaps the filmmaker's most conceptually refined project to date.
Stylistically, Cristi Puiu builds on typical sequence shots (the first being over half an hour long), and the tension captured, between existential despair and social misunderstanding, cannot be overstated. Whether it's the therapy session at the beginning of the film or the family discussions, they all contain a dose of inappropriate honesty - moments you don't want to see, but still do. The characters, almost absurd in their unfiltered realism, elicit that creeping feeling under the skin with their major flaws, a different one in every “episode” of the 2+ hour running time. In “Siempre libera”, narcissism and self-unawareness; in “Baba au ruhm”, typical male toxic infantilization and narcissism; in “Norma Jeane Mortenson”, anxiety.
It is only in the fourth “episode” that this rhythm is interrupted by an entirely different story, with a new set of characters, a new stake, and a new setting. Cloistered Bucharest is replaced by a rural setting, Oana's family in a police investigation. Not coincidentally, this fourth episode is also the most atmospheric, conveying, in the end, the confinement (both physical and emotional) that the director seems to have sought throughout the production and capturing, in effect, what 2020 felt like.
Saturday, June 17, 15:30
Casa de Cultură a Studenților