Clearly the COVID-19 scenario’s been on Cristi Puiu’s mind. After all, the Romanian director loudly voiced his opposition to mask mandates when on the publicity trail of his previous outing, the more impressive turn-of-the-century period drama Malmkrog. While his latest work is hardly a call-to-arms, Puiu is all-too-keen to bring up his disdain for bureaucracy, its concoction of corrupt officials and untrustworthy political leadership that brings forth the societal (or personal) fragility at the heart of his films. MMXX‘s four pandemic vignettes mark alluring, somewhat wayward film that’s in turns provocative and frustratingly opaque.
The medley of pandemic anecdotes are a psychotherapy session helmed by Oana (Bianca Cuculici), whose questioning of a new patient appears to reveal more her own discomforts than the person she’s treating; a nighttime scene in which Oana’s brother (Laurențiu Bondarenco) prepares a party, interrupted by a medical emergency involving pregnant friend admitted to a COVID hospital; Oana’s husband (Florin Țibre), a medic, listening distractedly to the story of a sordid sexual episode involving a colleague; and a final, jarring and seemingly disconnected sequence involving the interrogation of a female suspect in a child-trafficking ring.
The first and third sequences, each shot in a long take, are static and lengthy dialogue exchanges punctuated with occasional gags. The second sequence is more chaotic, and the way it explores the internecine challenges and Kafkaesque network of the Romanian health system recalls Puiu’s great breakout from 2005, The Death of Mr Lazarescu. The final scene breaks away from the sardonic comedy of its predecessors, diving into more familiar territory: a hard-hitting crime drama, and not an about-turn MMXX entirely pulls off.
Puiu’s last four films were selected for Cannes or Berlin, but his latest conspicuously bypasses them and that top-tier fall European festival, Venice, for a competition berth at San Sebastián––perhaps a sign of trouble. And while it certainly keeps your attention, this is not a work with the same sense of propulsion as his brilliant family tragicomedy Sierenevada or the compelling philosophical debates in Malmkrog. By contrast, MMXX’s pacing can be plodding, its narrative direction a little scattershot, and––perhaps reflecting the claustrophobic confines of pandemic life––everything feels stagey. And this is a long film––par for the course: Puiu’s not made a movie shorter than two-and-a-half hours since his 2001 debut Stuff and Dough––and watching a static shot in a dimly lit hospital waiting room, as in the third of this film’s stories, will test patience of even a hardened arthouse fan.
I wonder whether the issue is Puiu can’t quite articulate what, to him, was so especially frustrating about the pandemic––whether it reveals a fraud at the heart of political bureaucracy (emblematic of an entire society) or a more sentimental feeling of lost personal freedom. The film comes across more as bearing witness to a particularly weird moment in our recent past, the Roman numerals of the title ironically characterizing it as ancient history, even as its echoes ripple into the present.
MMXX premiered at the 2023 San Sebastian International Film Festival.