We see plenty of premeditated murders in the movies, but the emphasis tends to be more on the murder and less on the premeditation, for the obvious reason that cinema is more accommodating of action than thought. Motives may be established, but they don’t necessarily encompass the wholeness of the perpetrator’s complicated psyche or the deliberate, banal build-up to the crime. Over a difficult three-hour sprawl, Cristi Puiu’s Aurora fully explores the time before and after a killer strikes, and it has the cumulative effect of making what passes for a “motive” seem absurdly simplistic. As played by Puiu, who cast himself after a long audition process proved fruitless, this disturbed man emerges as chillingly unknowable, a mass of long-simmering grievances that finally, violently bubble to the surface.
The second in a planned series called “Six Stories From The Outskirts Of Bucharest,” Aurora follows Puiu’s superb 2005 feature The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu, which signaled the emergence of a Romanian New Wave. The earlier film, a withering critique of Romania’s callous health-care system, documented a retiree’s slow expiration over 153 minutes of real time, but if anything, Aurora is an even more austere, challenging work. As Viorel, a middle-aged metallurgist with two children, an ex-wife, and a girlfriend (Clara Voda) who’s crying in the opening scene, Puiu plays a man at the end of his rope. He’s resolved to do something terrible, but the film takes its time establishing the frayed personal and professional relationships that led him to this point. Even Viorel’s rifle comes together piece by piece by piece, firing pins first, before it goes off about halfway through.
Beautifully framed through doorways and darkened apartments, Aurora visually suggests the suffocating strictures of Viorel’s life, at home and at work. As an actor, Puiu only offers one expression, but it’s a doozy: a mask of impassivity, cracked by rage. Viorel doesn’t undergo any kind of transformation in Aurora; Puiu slowly reveals the sources of his homicidal urges, but the conviction to do harm is already apparent on his face. Aurora lacks the vein of dark comedy that added dimension to Mr. Lazarescu—not to mention a performance equal to Luminiţa Gheorghiu’s unforgettable work as a compassionate paramedic—though that flatness is part of the point. The earlier film nurses a flicker of humanity; this one finds it snuffed out.