Friday, March 23, 2012
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Writers: Cristian Mungiu, Razvan Radulescu
Photography: Oleg Mutu
Editor: Dana Bunescu
Cast: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, Alex Potocean, Luminita Gheorghiu, Ioan Sapdaru
This small-scale and ferociously intense story of late-period Communism, determinedly minute in scope and set in 1987 Romania towards the end of the harsh regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, made such a terrific impact on me the first time I saw it that I wasn't sure I wanted to see it again any time soon. When I finally did return to it recently I was interested to see just how much the sophistication of its aesthetics contributed to my first experience—and how carefully and deliberately the whole thing is put together.
The premise is so simple it feels almost cold in its calculation (and yo heads up spoilers begin now). Gabita (played by Laura Vasiliu) is pregnant and needs an abortion, which is illegal. She enlists her fellow student, roommate, and friend Otilia (played by Anamaria Marinca with a disaffected nonchalance that is often brilliant) to help her. The entire picture is a chronicle of their efforts to accomplish this on the day set for it—borrow the rest of the money they expect they will have to pay, connect with the abortionist, find a hotel room in which the procedure can take place, dispose of the fetus, and so on. All of this is set against a stifling inertia of bureaucracy and queasy numb apathy that hovers ineffably and penetrates all, like miasma in a swamp.
The movie has no political agenda about abortion at all, I suppose I should say. It could never have been made in present-day America (or even America of 1987), an interesting enough sidelight. Rather, it takes the need for occasional terminations of pregnancies as a given of the human condition, youth, and sexuality. It finds the subject a useful way in to a larger theme: the pervasiveness of intrusion and its humiliations in a society that does not particularly prize privacy. At the same time it appears perfectly comfortable with how much discomfort it knows it is likely to provoke. But always the approach, paradoxically enough, is with a light hand, bearing the mask of a finely tuned thriller.
Director and writer Cristian Mungiu's filmmaking is bracingly confident, even though this is just his second feature. He relies quite a bit on long takes, with the camera equally willing to move or to hold still and watch. When the camera moves it's evident someone is there, holding it, or walking just behind usually Otilia as she goes from place to place. This contributes even more to the sense of the picture's constant assaults, large and small, on privacies we take for granted. There is a telling acceptance among all of the characters that one is always being watched, one way or another. Part of daily life is to accommodate that.
As the picture goes on, Mungiu begins to cut off people or parts of their bodies with the frame. We see their chests but not their faces, for example. In a dinner party scene, we hear the voices but don't see the faces of people beyond either side of the frame. Again, this adds to the sense of violations of privacy. The camera and we by proxy are physically too close. In the last third, after dark, Mungiu is unafraid to let the frame go mostly black, as Otilia wanders the streets and up and down alleys and into the stairways of buildings, trying not to draw attention to herself when she encounters strangers.
More than anything, however, and ultimately what makes it work, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a very sharply drawn character study. As Gabita's irresponsibility and unwillingness to confront her situation continually lead to further and further dire consequences, with which the vaguely cynical Otilia just persists in coping (albeit with the ends plainly fraying), it veers toward becoming a kind of carnival-night hellhouse ride, an over-the-top exercise poised to explode unpleasantly at any moment in some potently visceral way. Once started, the skin never stops crawling, and the picture remains steadfastly believable even as the most outrageously unbelievable things begin to occur.
With Gabita and Otilia grounded so naturally in their environments as college students, they bear a universality or a familiarity, within which we can see they are people in their early 20s we have known and consorted with ourselves. And just when we are coming to realize, remembering them, that we had maybe better stop caring so much about them, that's when it's too late. We care. The screenplay is a marvel of efficiency, hooking one in helplessly, operating in fast strokes at the brainstem level.
Though it often feels clinical and studiously free of emotion itself, this is a film that knows well the reactions it is expecting to provoke, and they are not cerebral. The narrative here is so insanely compelling, so effortlessly a claw-the-armrest suspenser, that it can be easy to miss the art, and so, as if to remind us of the art, Mungiu picks a way to end it that is so sharply abrupt it can't help calling attention to itself. In that moment of confusion, even as the relief of its being finally over sets in, it forces you to look again and think and realize what an impeccable moment of timing it is—as, indeed, the whole movie, from start to finish, can fairly be characterized as a series of impeccable moments of timing.
Top 10 of 2007
I count this as an auspicious year in the movies for me because it's when I got my Netflix account. I didn't actually start going out to the movies again for a couple more years, so most of the renowned bountiful harvest of 2007 I have caught up with after the fact on DVD. And yes, I'm in agreement that this was a great year for movies, probably the best for the 2000s so far still, I would say. After my first three picks, and down to approximately #20, there's a bunch of movies that have still not settled well into position (not to mention the usual pesky gaps). Those that could well appear in future revisions of my top 10 include Crazy Love, No Country for Old Men, Chop Shop, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, I'm Not There., The Darjeeling Limited, Eastern Promises, and Ratatouille, not to mention the three other movies I wrote up below, all of which I liked too. These are good problems to have.
2. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
3. There Will Be Blood
4. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead
5. My Kid Could Paint That
6. The Savages
7. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
10. Death Proof
Didn't like so much: Across the Universe, The Counterfeiters, Margot at the Wedding, Sweeney Todd, 300
Gaps: Charlie Wilson's War; Lust, Caution; My Winnipeg; Planet Terror; Superbad
Other write-ups: Grace Is Gone, In the Valley of Elah, Taxi to the Dark Side