Along with Wall-E, I ordered 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days from Netflix. This is a 2008 Romanian movie about the horrors of illegal abortion under Ceausescu. The first movie was named best animated feature by my colleagues in NYFCO, while the second earned best foreign movie last year. I had misgivings about both, but felt obligated to experience with my own eyes what my peers had voted for.
Just as I am suspicious of any product with the brand name Disney on it, I am also averse to any movie that falls within the general category of how evil Communism was. Like The Lives of Others, which was named best foreign movie by NYFCO in 2007, I didn’t need to watch a movie to know that East Germany or Romania were crushing the human spirit and all that sort of thing. My preferences are for movies like Goodbye, Lenin, which at least tried to humanize the old guard Communists even if they are hardly an appeal to overthrow the capitalist system.
Much to my surprise, my misgivings about 4 Months were unfounded, as was not the case with Wall-E. Rather than being an ideological blunderbuss against Stalinism, the movie is much more a story about two young women dealing with a problem that exists in countries ruled by the right and the left alike. Although there is clearly an implied critique of a social system that operated on nominally egalitarian values, director Cristian Mungiu was far more interested in the human drama which pits vulnerable college roommates against some completely callous men, including the abortionist from hell.
As the movie begins, we see Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela ‘Găbiţa’ Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) making preparations for a weekend trip in their dormitory apartment. It takes a while for us to learn that Găbiţa is pregnant and that Otilia plans to help her navigate through an abortion, which was illegal in 1987, the year in which the story is set and the twilight of Ceauşescu’s rule.
Despite one’s expectations that the pregnant Găbiţa will be the main character, it is really Otilia around whom the plot revolves. She serves as an advance party to make contact with the abortionist and line up a hotel in which he can work on Găbiţa. Despite being somewhat taciturn in nature, Otilia’s gestures and facial expressions convey much more feeling than you will see from the average Hollywood actor. As the horrors mount in this brutal story, you find yourself identifying more and more with her character even though director Mungiu spurns the kind of melodrama that you would expect from such a story.
By avoiding close-ups and a musical score, he surrenders what most directors see as their most potent weapons. He seems influenced by the Dardenne brothers in Belgium who likewise prefer an austere setting for their morality tales. But all of these directors now sprouting up around the world (except of course in the ever-so-corrupt Hollywood) would appear to be following the trail blazed by France’s Robert Bresson, who was famous for his unsentimental but sympathetic view of his tormented characters.
The most powerful scene in this unforgettable movie takes place in the hotel room when the two women find themselves at the mercy of one of the most villainous characters I have encountered in a long time. Forget about James Bond’s adversaries, Mr. Bebe the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) is evil incarnate. When he learns that the woman lack sufficient funds to abort a pregnancy now 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days old, he alternates between browbeating them for wasting his time and implying ways that they can make up for the shortage of funds. Suffice it to say that Otilia comes to the aid of her roommate in a way that underscores the brutal sexism of Romanian society under Ceauşescu.
Despite its obvious revulsion over the mores of the Stalinist era, the movie’s closest relative would be The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, another movie dealing with nightmares in the Romanian medical system. However, the action in Mr. Lazarescu takes place after the fall of Ceauşescu and suggests that post-Communist “liberation” is not all it was cracked up to be.
As a bonus, the Netflix DVD for Four Months contains a documentary on the showing of the movie in Romania, where there are fewer than 50 movie theaters for a population of 22 million. A German and a Dutch technician equip a van with mobile movie projection equipment and tour around the country. A wiki article on the Romanian film industry mentions that in the 1950s “1000 16 mm projectors and 100 film caravans (mobile theatres) were imported from the Soviet Union in order to promote the introduction of film into the rural environment.” So in the grand scheme of things, it seems that Communism delivered the goods better than the capitalist system at least on this score.
Despite the success of movies like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, probably the best known bit of Romanian cinema-so to speak-was the beginning of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat, where Romanian villagers are represented as subhuman.
For a view of the true Romanian genius, I strongly recommend the interview with director Cristian Mungiu that is included in the DVD in which he explains the directorial decisions that he made in the course of making the movie. It is like attending a seminar at one of America’s finest film schools, although they are unlikely to have somebody as brilliant as Mungiu in their faculty.
Another interview with the director given to european-films.net will give you a sense of his artistic principles:
One of the reasons why the film works so well is because indeed it does not judge, it just shows what happens to the two girls. Says Mungiu: “It is not a moralising story because that would mean that my point of view is in the story and I hope that my point of view is not; I’m just telling a story. People can see some moral in it. In a strange way, the story is also about what a lack of freedom does to people; about how abusing the lack of freedom is also wrong. Because after abortions were forbidden in communist times, people abused this freedom in the early nineties. We had like one million abortions in the first year after the fall of communism. We didn’t know how to behave. They thought: if you are allowed by law to do this, then it is okay. But you have to think about the kind of freedom that you are given”.
The film’s story is reinforced by a clear formal style (a mix of handheld and more stationary shots with a lot of things happening off-camera) that never calls attention to itself but is nevertheless rigorously enforced throughout the film. The director explains: “I wanted to have a very precise and coherent style for this film and make sure that we followed it, so I just wrote it down. I don’t remember exactly, but I’m quite sure it all came from the decision of having long takes. It was a decision that was made during the writing [of the screenplay]. Then we made some tests, trying to picture how we were going to capture everything we needed in one take.
“Initially, we were just moving the camera around, but this was stupid, so we decided that some things that were happening were just going to be lost; they would be happening off camera. After this, since there is a bigger story to the characters than what we shoot, it is okay to just focus on what’s important. So we are showing this 2.35 [the widescreen aspect ratio] version of real life, putting the camera in the middle of the action and having real life also happening behind the camera and besides it; not necessarily having the characters’ faces in the shot”.
Mungiu continues: “We decided that we would not use formal elements that would make our presence as filmmakers more obvious. I knew that I was not going to use music from the beginning and we never pan writing [move the camera up or down] in the film unless someone was triggering this pan. Since we have one main character, the camera would just follow this main character, so the rhythm of this film would be the rhythm of this character. When Otillia is sitting and calm, the camera would stay with her, and if she was agitated and moving a lot, then the camera would follow”.