Two on the parastas: Sieranevada and Cuibul de viespi

April 16, 2018 by Lucian Mogosanu

Romanian funeral and memorial services are interesting, somewhat peculiar and necessarily Christian Orthodox proceedings. You have to see one to notice its peculiarities, and you have to actually live through one to start comprehending its subtleties; and while experimenting things is out of fashion nowadays, Father Time giveth not even the slightest fuck what people want and it forgiveth no one. The older ones around you usually go first, then it's your time, and in all civilized societies, people firstly participate in that which links the gone to the otherworldy, and only then they mourn in silence and carry on with their lives. The proceedings of course bear some value for the alien anthropologist etc., anyway, this is but an aside1.

The first item under scrutiny is Cristi Puiu's superb Sieranevada, a lengthy onion-shaped film, in that it is structured in layers waiting to be peeled by the scrupulous viewer. The film takes place in a wintery Bucharest of 2015, about this or that time, a Bucharest which incidentally is not that different from the same place in 2018, at least not from the points of view illustrated in our piece. People go about their lives much like ants, preocuppying themselves with this or that minor issue, or at least that's what the exposition would have us believe.

One of the layers embedded within Sieranevada's structure confronts the viewer with the general problem of managing a family. Traditional Romanian families are relatively large: back in the days when Romanians were preponderently organized in villages, everyone knew everyone, so who married whom was usually a pretty clearly cut deal; now, in the modern days of urban villages, things are in fact not that different, the difference being mostly geographical in nature. Anyway, everyone's related to everyone else in some way or another.

There is for one that old story of the fruit that doesn't fall far from the tree, illustrating that so-called mistakes tend to be repeated by exponents of the next generation in pretty much the same ways the previous one did it. So you see, the husband's upset that his wife doesn't know how to give blowjobs, regardless of the fact that the derp in question was entirely incapable to find a woman who would be willing to do that in the first place. Then we find out that the faithful husband (the other one) was oh, not so faithful after all, and that the wife knew, and now what? he's gone anyway; and that the cousins are obnoxious, the uncle is an old fucker and that the kids are generally little pieces of shit. There's more to it than that. The viewer is encouraged to analyze in more depth; who would have thought that such complexity could arise from just putting a bunch of people in an apartment and looking at the relations between them, eh?

Then there's the social layer. At some point during communism, a bunch of people had the naive impression that if they worked hard enough, they -- well, maybe not they, but at least their children will succeed. And it so happens that the smarter ones did! The older son is a doctor of sorts, and the younger one works in the army, so they're at least one step more accomplished than their forefathers. We're also faced with the exact opposite situation: the uncle's social situation isn't explicitly stated, but given that he's unable to keep a family with two children who have just grown into their adulthood -- one who's a rebel chick no one gives a fuck about, and the other a kid who spends most of his time in the YouTube indoctrination camp -- we're led to believe that he is in fact a nobody.

And of course, there's the frustrated ex-"party cadre" old woman who keeps yammering about how communism was all about the "greater good" and about how "sacrifices had to be made", the despicable old hag who is guilty of simply having existed on the face of the Earth during the communist years. She touts about all the "progress" brought about by her dear communists, not even discussing that no, the people did not need fucking apartment blocks in order to live better, and that some of them lived better before being crammed in those nasty matchboxes, and that overall, decades of living in matchboxes resulted in everyone being worse off than before. And yes, the young woman is right, the fact that she gets to sit at a table with everyone else, including the failed guy, is an offense to everyone having to listen to her insufferable crap. I tip my hat to both the actress and the director for this part, she'll go down in history as the archetypal communist lady still living as a parasite in the 2010s.

Then the last layer -- at least as far as this armchair movie critic can tell -- goes full circle, blending the old and the new in the very same matchbox-apartment where most of the action takes place. By the way, who would have thought that a good film can be made using only one stage? This was a thing back in the day when people still made movies.

Anyway, the last layer exposes the bonds between the olds and the news through the simple act of documentation. We have, give or take, two generations of a family, three if we count the baby. A memorial service is presented in the literal sense: the priest and the small choir perform the memorial service exactly as-is, which again, makes this quite a documentary. Then, the West is presented through the distorted lens used by Romanians, at micrometer precision: leaving aside the fact that they all think they know "who was behind 9/11", the music, the television, all the modern crap down to the suffocatingly crowded Bucharest with its middle-class people preparing their kids for Disney cosplay, all these are entirely accurate -- ask me how I know this. The very intro depicts approximately ten minutes of Bucharestian "cotidian", which is almost everything that can be said on the subject.

Finally, the actors are accurate firstly because they're good, and not lastly because Cristi Puiu may have been able to pull this off with say, Russians, but definitely not with Czech, or, heavens forbid, French actors. A fine eye can discern the exact pedigree of each of the actors just by looking at the Romanianness of their acting, going back to the days when "aferim" was still in use.

So at the end the guys have a laugh. Not impressive, but what can I say, at least they didn't have to bring British journalists to document the thing.

The second item under scrutiny is Cuibul de viespi (The wasps' nest), a 1987 picturization of Alexandru Kirițescu's Gaițele (The magpies). The film is part comedy-part snorefest, and I expect that the original play is not very far off, but we'll have to work with what we have. In any case, the movie is way too burdened with late totalitarian communist influence to be of any notable value, but again, we work with what we have.

The action takes place somewhere in the 1930s. Aneta, the wife of the late Tase Duduleanu, is an old yet rich and powerful woman. She is also the sister of two other women, one stupid, the other also a narcissist. She also has two sons, Ianache and George (frenchized Georges) and a daughter, Margareta (frenchized Margot), who is the family snowflake, and incidentally the object of the parastas and a pretext for everything presented by the authors.

Margot becomes the wife of one Mircea from Bucharest, a seemingly noir figure, but in a very forced manner that annoyed the hell out of me. Anyway, Mircea becomes enamoured with Wanda, an expensive whore freshly returned from Paris, so at one point Margot finds out, she kills herself, and thus the family ends up organizing a small party in the family tomb. The end, big whoop.

There are good parts and bad parts. One of the bad parts is that the acting is most of the time very exaggerated. This is very typical of Romanian actors, but this one is beyond all Romanian movies that I remember, and I've seen quite a few of them. Yes, I get that this is a comedy, but the exaggeration is usually meant to tilt situations and characters towards the artistic and not away from it. Take by contrast the Rădulescu-Caragiu rendition of Caragiale's Petițiune, and you'll see how bad a job Horea Popescu has done with his Wasps' nest.

Another bad part is the aforementioned communist thing which makes the movie completely unsalvageable. The typical tropes -- i.e. the bourgeois are evil, the kids are assploited, the servants are badly treated and the social life (of actual people) is full of debauchery -- permeate throughout the whole thing in a way completely lacking verisimilitude: yes, women are whores, so how does that automagically make them bitches? what, you think women weren't whoring during the communist years? And, how the fuck does a man take random chick into his home and just promises to marry her like that? Now now, really.

The good parts are few and far between, as follows. First, the cast: Tamara Buciuceanu does a pretty good job when she doesn't completely exaggerate her acting, and so does Ileana Stana-Ionescu, whose Germanian -- a mix of German and Romanian -- is hilarious; Marin Moraru and Gheorghe Dinică (playing the young brothers Duduleanu) are stellar. Then, the intellectual status of cultivated people in the '30s is (unexpectedly!) correctly represented, as illustrated by the fact that the average educated person could speak three or four languages, whereas the average educated communist could speak maybe Russian, maybe French, but rarely both. Sadly, this is where the good parts end.

Finally, we have the parastas, which funnily enough, is missing. Getting priests on the tape was most likely verboten, despite the fact that the film does not depict communist Romania and also that even in the '80s communist Romanians had memorial services; because remember:

The majority of people living on what is now Romanian soil have been Orthodox Christians centuries before such a thing as a "Romania" even existed. Even today's rationalist-atheist propaganda makes only a small dent in Romanians' belief, which makes the Romanian Orthodox Church one of the country's most powerful institutions, religious, political or otherwise.

All in all, a pretty bad movie, that turned out to be much worse re-seeing it after circa ten years.

So there you have them, two depictions of Romanian families remembering their dead. One new, one old, the new one clearly superior in each and every possible way, save for the voice quality, which is awful in Cristi Puiu's film and just plain bad in Horea Popescu's. But the same can be said of most (all) of Romanian movies, so it helps to have subtitles ready for them.

  1. Speaking of asides: I wanted to keep this review without too many parentheses, but I just can't help it.

    "Parastas" comes from the greek "parastasis", which literally means standing (στασις) beside (παρά-). In Christian-Orthodox tradition, the passed-away's closed ones spend the first night after death in vigil, watching over the passed-away's remains, and, symbolically, over the soul which has yet to cross into the other world. Then, at the day of the funeral, the dead is (at least at the funerals I've been to) walked on a last visit near places that were important to them during their life, just before the actual burial. On this walk, coins are often thrown by the mourners at crossroads. In some regions (and also as can been observed in the movie), the dead's relatives also go through the ritual of wrapping handkerchiefs around coins and handing them to other participants.

    Now, why would this be? The internets seem to be of help here. I quote:

    PARA´STASIS (παράστασις), a fee of one drachm paid to an arbitrator by the plaintiff, on bringing his cause before him, and by the defendant, on putting in his answer; likewise on making an application for delay, and probably also on making a counter-affidavit [...]

    This is somewhat funny, because the coin-throwing thing is older than Christianity; it in fact symbolizes the fee paid by the dead to cross the Styx into the other world. This meaning is closer to the actual "parastas" (not to the vigil, which is simply "priveghi" in Romanian), which is an official service (that is, it involves a priest) to help the dead be received into Heaven -- for srs, listen to it! it's in Sieranevada. This is then followed by a dinner from which koliva and strong alcohol are never-ever absent, which makes this a party, sort-of.

    Maybe only through coincidence, the ancient Dacians in the geographical region of Romania also commemorated their dead through celebration. But my naive self may just like to believe that some of the ancient traditions remained with the passing of millenia. 

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One Response to “Two on the parastas: Sieranevada and Cuibul de viespi”

  1. #1:
    spyked says:

    After reviewing Cristi Puiu's Sieranevada yesterday (and not by coincidence, since he's born on the 3rd of April), I stand by my words regarding the monumental documentary value of his movie, as social, cultural, religious and political depiction, to say the very least.

    There may be a few "artificial" moments scattered throughout, but otherwise: the characters are precisely someone in your social circle in 2015 progre Romania, while the interactions between them reveal the underlying social structure in its finest details. For example: yes, Lari, the laughing jester, is also the smartest among them all, but at the same time the most naïve, one testament to this being just the way that he gets his ass kicked in the parking lot; and, oh boy, I simply loved Vasluianu's acting here, mainly for its authenticity -- ask me how I know that.

    Back when I wrote the initial commentary, I'm pretty sure that I missed the... let's call it "core lesson" of Sieranevada. At the very end (when they *finally* get to eat), it very much looks like the author speaks through one of the characters (Gabi) about the whole 9/11 deal and how the Patriot Act was bullshit and so on. To my eye at least, we are told that this piece is but a reflection of the Western world and its decay: some old folks clinging to their old beliefs and subjecting their children to rituals whose meaning was meanwhile forgotten by everybody involved, trying to make do; meanwhile, one of the family members infiltrates an "architecture student" who's drunk as fuck but otherwise has no job of being there and two thirds of the family members go hysterical, while the remaining third just sit at the table and laugh at the whole situation. And the fact that all this happens during the commemoration of someone's death isn't coincidental either and maybe they're not entirely clear what they're discussing: 9/11 is the beginning of Western decay (the second one after the Romans, at least), while twenty years later there's just about nothing left there. The family won't even get to meet for a parastas, because reasons and shit.

    So if Sandra thought communism was bad, well... a great deal was lost this time around as well.

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