Sunday, January 27, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Nothing good happens in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the riveting, horrifying chronicle of an illegal abortion performed in 1987 when Ceau¸escu's dictatorial hand still gripped Romania's throat. And yet no lover of greatness in filmmaking will want to look away from one of the very best movies of 2007, just now receiving its American release. Cristian Mungiu's powerful documentary-style drama — rightful winner of the top prize at Cannes last year — arrives on the heels of Cristi Puiu's 2006 international award winner, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. And taken together, the two establish a new, exciting, distinctly Romanian cinematic voice distinguished by a preference for documentary-style austerity and a control that only looks artless, applied in service to social realism and the honest commemoration of recent history. With no little irony does Mungiu bill 4 Months as the first in his ''Tales of the Golden Age.''

The action takes place over the longest 24 hours in the lives of fellow college students Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, who'd win an Oscar in my ideal universe). Gabita is the pregnant one; she's also the more childlike one, nearly paralyzed with fear. So it falls to Otilia, the more resourceful one, to arrange for a termination — raising the cash, procuring the abortionist, and booking the hotel in which the terrible business can be done. In the beginning, Mungiu documents their shared tenement life itself as a microcosm of what it takes to survive in a beaten-down society, a hive of bartering and bribing for everything from cigarettes to soap. Otilia is proficient at the deal, but she's on much more dangerous ground negotiating with a service provider who's nothing like the empathetic back-alley heroine of Vera Drake. She's also alone, unable to entrust even her boyfriend with her secrets: He's from a higher class of the ''classless'' society, and in one of the movie's most devastating scenes, Otilia sits silently at her beau's family table (a family lousy with well-to-do doctors, no less), while glib opportunists party all around her.

The abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), is at once a monster, a necessity, and just another literally damned man working his own degraded and degrading angles in a no-win society. Yet by the time he finishes with his ministrations — and they are all the more terrible for taking place just out of camera sight — these two young women will be scarred in ways even they couldn't have imagined. Working with Oleg Mutu, the superb cinematographer who also shot Mr. Lazarescu, Mungiu has a daring sense of when to hoist a handheld camera and when to let the camera sit still while characters move in and out of the frame in long, unbroken takes — as in real life. Misery is everywhere in this spare masterpiece, but so is artistic triumph.

In “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” a ferocious, unsentimental, often brilliantly directed film about a young woman who helps a friend secure an abortion, the camera doesn’t follow the action, it expresses consciousness itself. This consciousness — alert to the world and insistently alive — is embodied by a young university student who, one wintry day in the late 1980s, helps her roommate with an abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania when such procedures were illegal, not uncommon and too often fatal. It’s a pitiless, violent story that in its telling becomes a haunting and haunted intellectual and aesthetic achievement.

You may already have heard something about “4 Months,” which was awarded the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, only to be shut out from Academy Award consideration a few weeks ago by the philistines who select the foreign-language nominees. The Oscars are absurd, yet they can help a microscopically budgeted foreign-language film find a supportive audience. And “4 Months” deserves to be seen by the largest audience possible, partly because it offers a welcome alternative to the coy, trivializing attitude toward abortion now in vogue in American fiction films, but largely because it marks the emergence of an important new talent in the Romanian writer and director Cristian Mungiu.

With a lack of ceremony and no music to set the mood, Mr. Mungiu opens “4 Months” on the pale, lithe Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) moving about a cramped university dorm room, rearranging this and that, and packing a plastic tablecloth in a travel bag while exchanging seeming banalities with Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, sensational and impeccably controlled). Because Mr. Mungiu writes words rather than exposition, he doesn’t explain what’s going on or why. It takes time for you to find the meaning in his words and the pauses in between them. You sift through naturalistic conversations that — much like the dorm’s grubby furnishings, its darkly lighted hallways and the mewling kittens Otilia finds in those grim passages — seem artless, more like real life than aesthetic choices.

But “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” is nothing if not a triumph of aesthetic choices, of fluidly moving camerawork, rigorous framing and sustained long shots that allow you to explore the image rather than try to catch hold of it. The film starts off quietly despite Gabita’s jitters, but subtly shifts registers once Otilia leaves to run some errands. With the camera sometimes leading and sometimes following, Otilia cruises through the long dorm halls, drops in on some other students and buys cigarettes from a resident vendor. There’s urgency in her step despite the casualness of these exchanges, an exigency that’s expressed both by the worry in her face and the way Mr. Mungiu keeps her steadily locked in his camera’s sights.

Over the course of the film this persistence of vision creates an extraordinary level of tension. Otilia, it soon emerges, has just begun a harrowing journey that will take her from one bleak hotel to another (where the customer is always and often comically wrong) and through a labyrinth of near-pitch-black streets and darker human behavior. Otilia will stand by Gabita, who will almost collapse in turn, and go up against her own lover, Adi (Alex Potocean), and a grotesque back-alley abortionist cruelly known as Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov, terrifying), who will test the limits of the women’s friendship. Throughout her odyssey Mr. Mungiu and his camera will keep watch on Otilia without close-ups, speeches, false morality or judgment.

What you get instead is a painstakingly real world of worn-out rooms and worn-out lives, and black-market deals over cigarettes and human bodies. The verisimilitude can be startling, enveloping. You see the history of this place etched in its people, in Otilia’s determined face and Gabita’s lissome form, which sways against difficulties like a reed. You see it too in the camerawork that, like Otilia, never relinquishes its intense focus yet seems to catch details — like the dog that passes near her when she first tries to book a hotel room — with the lightness of a happy accident. Hours later, during an unbearably tense scene when she’s surrounded by barking dogs on a desolate street, you realize there are no accidents here, just art.

In some respects Mr. Mungiu has created a fascinating companion piece to another recent Romanian tour de force, the 2005 drama “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.” Directed by Cristi Puiu — and shot by Oleg Mutu, the ingenious director of photography for “4 Months” — “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” explores the intersection of the social and the personal on the human body, and the incalculable trivial and monumental ways our bodies are at once situated in the world as objects and subjects. Over the course of the torturous, inept hospitalization that eventually realizes the threat of the film’s title, Mr. Lazarescu’s body becomes a field of meaning, a landscape of despair and a site of brutal exchange among other, more robust bodies.

In interviews, Mr. Mungiu has resisted some of the metaphoric readings of his film (say, as an attack on the Ceausescu regime) and resisted making overt declarations on abortion. I’ve read more than once that the film is not about abortion (or even an abortion) but, rather, totalitarianism, a take that brings to mind Susan Sontag’s observation that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” This isn’t to say that “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” isn’t also about human will and the struggle for freedom in the face of state oppression, only to suggest that such readings can be limited and limiting. Mr. Mungiu never forgets the palpably real women at the center of his film, and one of its great virtues is that neither do you.

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