The film is set in Bucharest and we see a man and woman set off for a family lunch. Mimi Branescu is Lary and he is in trouble with the missus (Laura, played by Catalina Moga) for buying the wrong Disney dress for their daughter. In fact, his wife resembles a Disney stepmother – all beautiful hauteur, with arched eyebrows and a cruel tongue.
As they drive towards their destination, she harangues him and nags him all the way. When they reach his mother’s home, she gives him a time limit – they stay until 2pm and then they’re off. However, when we get to see what’s going on inside, we know that Laura and Lary are probably in for a long day.
It transpires that the family are gathering for a memorial service for Mimi’s father. Women are cooking in the kitchen or creating knickknacks in a bedroom, and the apartment is in constant motion as doors are opened and shut on various conversations and activities. The audience is rarely explicitly told anything and we are left to piece together the family puzzle for ourselves. What we do gather is that everyone is waiting for the priest to come and bless the deceased man and sprinkle a little magic around the flat. By making us fill in the gaps, we become interlopers peering in on a family. And what a family! There are arguments, tears, recriminations, fake strokes and a random vomiting Croatian – and so much more. We have an elderly neighbour talking about the good old days of Communism in one room while a husband and wife can be fighting over infidelity in another.
Yet in the brief moment that Puiu takes the action outside, we see this histrionic and chaotic behavior spill out onto the streets of Bucharest. It would appear that this is not just a film about an entertaining dysfunctional family, but is an analysis of a dysfunctional society. With the action taking place just after the events of Charlie Hebdo in Paris we see its after effects in this family home. The attack resonates throughout the film, mainly through heated debates at the dinner table that have been repeated ad infinitum at dinner tables all over the world.
Puiu has created a sympathetic and humorous microcosm in this small setting and Mimi Branescu conveys both these traits in his rendering of Lary. Yet the ensemble cast works well as a whole, with no weak links. A word of warning: eat something before you see this film. At almost three hours, and with various characters whingeing about when they’re going to eat, not to mention various dishes being prepared throughout the film, a couple of stuffed cabbage rolls before you go in should do the trick.