There's a single characteristic about Sieranevada around which all the others revolve, and that is duration. The film is 173 minutes long. Other films, of course, have been longer, but that's by all means an impressive span of time, and Sieranevada makes sure we feel it: a solid 150 minutes or more of the film takes place inside of a single apartment, generally in extremely long takes from one of just four or five repeated camera locations, and it takes place in something very close to real time. You can't in good faith call this "boring", because that would suggest that in some way the film got away from director Cristi Puiu, that it was an accident that caused the film to be this long and this slow, and obviously that can't possibly be the case. This is a very intentional film, in fact: one that uses its extreme duration for exact and purposeful reasons.

It is the story of a family in a particular fraught moment: paterfamilias Emil has died, and following the special custom of the branch of the Romanian Orthodox Church to which he belonged, his widow Nuša (Dana Dogaru) has assembled most of her family to a special ritual, in which a man symbolically representing the deceased is invited to join the family's dinner, thereby allowing his soul to settle in the afterlife and reify the belief that the dead watch lovingly over the living. We learn that 's children don't take this ritual seriously even before we learn what the ritual is, or for that matter that there has been a recent death: the unhurried opening scenes between 's son Lary (Mimi Brănescu, in the film's de facto lead role) and his wife Laura (CătălinA Moga) includes, besides her acrimonious sniping that he bought their daughter the wrong Disney Princess dress for an upcoming school play (the first nod in the direction of global consumer culture, a thread the film weaves throughout), the hope that this family thing won't take too long, because the couple really does have to get to another engagement later in the day.

After Laura drops Lary off at Nuša's home, we meet the rest of the family, most of whom share Lary's sense of slightly amused ambivalence, at the whole thing. Puiu's script makes limited effort to explain who these people are and how they are interrelated, but over the course of three hours, I think I picked up on the essentials: Lary's sister is Sandra (Judith State), and she and her husband Gabi (Rolando Matsangos) have an infant daughter. Nuša's sister Ofelia (Ana Ciontea) is a sobbing basket case for reasons we'll learn later on, and her son Sebi (Marin Grigore) is on hand to serve as Emil's avatar at the ritual, though worked up by the recent Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, he'd rather spend the day ranting about world politics, and sharing his theories about how 9/11 really happened. Nuša's other sister Evelina (Tatiana Iekel) and her husband (who is, I think, Bogdan Dumitrache?) are also on hand, as is the twenty-something Cami (Ilona Brezoianu), whose relation to the family is entirely obscure, though it's not helped out by the fact that she's brought as her guest a strung-out young woman who alternates the whole party between sleeping and vomiting, both of them entirely offscreen. Eventually a contingent of priests are added to this cramped assembly, and after them comes Ofelia's husband Toni (Sorin Medeleni), not exactly with an invitation and not exactly without one; Ofelia having just discovered that he's been having an affair and Sebi ready to disown the old man, the right course would surely have been to stay away, but in a bully, blowhard way, Toni is confident that this is the right situation to atone, or at least claim to atone. Sebi, piqued, refuses to fulfill his duties in the ritual until Toni leaves, and Nuša refuses to permit anybody to eat until Sebi has taken his seat at the head of the table, and so the whole cluster of folks grow hungrier and hungrier, drunker and drunker, with an enormous tableful of food that cannot be eaten, like an ultra-realist version of The Exterminating Angel.

So let's return to that running time. Sieranevada is, above all things, a film about the dreary inescapability of family: it story depicts the process by which unspoken resentments and petty frustrations start to get spoken when thrown into the pressure cooker of a small space where nobody can leave and everybody's getting increasingly impatient to eat. The almost unbearable running time of the movie is a natural way of depicting that process in vivid real time. Here is the core truth about Sieranevada: we are meant to find it aggravating. If it is possible to complain about the film, as I guess I'd be inclined to complain, that it's nothing but an endless imprisonment with a bunch of people who are in many ways completely annoying and unlikable, it is also valueless to do so, since that's the whole point. When the film is funny - and it is surprisingly funny for most of its running time, but then mordant pitch-black comedy isn't new from the director of the ur-text of the Romanian New Wave, The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu - it's after the fashion of the member of the family who has the blessed luck to view his relatives as charming goofballs rather than soul-sucking monsters (Lary fills the role of the amused observer in this scenario, and he does it splendidly).

Here's my question: is there an actual reason for having done this? It's done extremely well, mind you. The acting is perfect and the dialogue, especially once the wheedling, whingey Toni arrives, is note-perfect in capturing the desperate irritation of being surrounded by people you would rather not be; the handful of key revelations (one of which serves as the punchline to an enormously prosaic scene outside, the last time we leave the apartment) are so organically drawn out of the surrounding material that it's almost not till they're over that you realise you've just been handed the solution to an entire character arc. And there's not enough praise in the world for Puiu and cinematographer Barbu Bălăsoiu's visual handling of the material: the movie takes place almost exclusively in the form of a tripod-mounted camera which pans back and forth, across as much as 270° of the interior spaces, glancing between different conversations and moments of activity in precise mimicry of an unseen guest trying to capture as much of the party as it's possible for one observer to manage. It's not exactly that the images remain fresh and new: by the end of the first hour, you've seen pretty much every single type of framing that the film has to offer. But the incredible sense of of place is stellar throughout: we feel, emphatically, the tightness and closeness of that party, and it is utterly maddening to us just as much as the characters.

And... then I don't know. Sieranevada is a huge investment: of time, of intellectual energy to follow the barely-expressed screenplay (intentionally so: we are watching an established family in its natural environment, and it's our job to keep up with them), of emotional stamina to handle the non-stop barrage of people being mad at other people, being hurt by other people, being annoyed the point of comedy by other people. It repays that investment with, frankly, nothing very innovative on any level: aesthetically, this is just more of what the Romanian cinema has been cranking out for over a decade now, and thematically, it's full of observations about family that I cannot imagine qualifying as startling to anybody who wasn't born an orphan, or has ever seen a film or play in the broadly-defined category of "domestic drama". The aesthetic remains appropriate and immaculately-executed, and the thematic argument does not become inaccurate simply by virtue of being familiar. But if familiarity isn't inherently a sin, it's even less inherently a virtue The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu is long and hard, but it also feels like nothing else. Sieranevada feels like a whole lot of things, and that's simply not a great end point for a film that makes so many demands of its viewer.