Saturday, March 15, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

You may have heard this described as the Romanian abortion film. It's convenient shorthand, but a little unfortunate, as it fails to convey the film's complexity, suspense, and power.

To be sure, the film depicts, in a straightforward and unflinching way, a day in the lives of two Romanian college students, Otilia and Gabita, and their efforts (really, Otilia's efforts) to obtain an illegal abortion for Gabita. But these two woman have lived their entire lives in the totalitarian regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, whose grip on power would end a couple of years after the events depicted here, in the late 1980s. This film conveys with brutal honesty what life in such a regime demanded of ordinary people in ordinary life.

The masterful director, Cristian Mungiu, tells the story in a series of long takes (generally one shot per scene) with no soundtrack. Often the camera is still as people move in and out of the shot, and what you hear are the sounds of dingy, ordinary life. It's as if Mungiu is urging you to just look, look at this; don't look away. And even though you sometimes want to, you can't--from the very first scenes, you begin feeling unsettled and soon a slow fear begins to burn as you witness the jeopardy in which these women are caught. The tension builds; you realize that this depiction of drab, ordinary life has become a suspenseful thriller.

In a society where the only real market is the black market, every interaction feels like a transaction. In the dorm, where at first it appears that the two women are planning for a weekend away, Otilia barters for cigarettes and cosmetics. Then she makes a stop to see her self-centered boyfriend who, oblivious to her rather apparent tension, extracts fom her a promise to attend his mother's birthday party. Then she is making hotel arrangements, and finds she must account for herself to a rude hotel clerk who has lost the reservation over the phone, and ultimately has to scramble to book another, more expensive room. Then she must deal with the abortionist, with whom Gabita has spoken on the phone. It's quickly apparent that Gabita has botched nearly all of the particulars, and Otilia is left to pick up pieces with this chilling man, whose business-like manner serves as a thin veneer over his essential brutality.

Each encounter, from the smallest to the most intense, demands of Otilia all her reserves of canny resourcefulness. There's not one single easy moment. The fact that she is a seeking what turns out to be a second-term abortion (punishable as murder) for her friend ups the stakes, to be sure, but this is life as Otilia has come to know it. That's the essential truth here--an entirely common crisis for a college student who finds herself with an unwanted pregnancy quickly turns into a situation that demands profound sacrifices not only from her but from a friend with infinitely better coping skills.

On reflection, this film reminded me of the wonderful adventure film, "Alive!," which depicts the story of a mountain plane crash that left the surviving passengers stranded for months so that they were ultimately confronted with the choice of whether to eat the remains of the dead passengers in order to survive. This film, like that one, depicts how a person's essential character emerges in extreme crisis. Gabita would be merely a flake in a more tolerant culture; she is someone you might know who doesn't think things through very well and lies to herself and others in order to avoid facing harsh reality, immobilized by her own weakness and fear. But in this society, failings like Gabita's are magnified to monstrous proportions. Here, too, friendship demands heroism; in order to help her friend and, ultimately, to survive, Otilia must not only be practical and smart but extraordinarily courageous, determined, and tough-minded.

Both actresses are excellent. Laura Vasiliu is memorable--pretty, thin, nervous, infuriating, and familiar as someone who spends much of life in over her head, but in a society whose waters are particularly unforgiving. And Anamaria Marinca, who plays Otilia, is riveting. She pulls you so deeply into her experience that you feel almost as though you are living it, particularly in a scene late in the film where she must endure the birthday party that her boyfriend has turned into a test of her love. People move in and out of a crowded shot at a dinner table, impassive Otilia at the center, miserably enduring seemingly interminable chatter about Easter egg dyes and recipes while she worries if her friend is dead or alive and stiffens her resolve against the trauma she herself has just endured. Later, we watch her scurrying through Bucharest alone at night as though a fugitive, the reward for her stolid friendship and loyalty.

Filmmakers in former Eastern bloc countries are now able to tell us stories they couldn't tell before (e.g., "The Lives of Others" from the former GDR and "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," a great but bleak film from last year about a dying man's final indignities in the Romanian health care system). Like those films, "4 Months" buries you deep in the experience of these women, paying so dearly for small mistakes that are, in many instances, not even their own. This is not an issue film--people on both sides of the abortion debate will find plenty of fodder for their causes--but its subject matter is well-chosen, aptly depicting how exploitation of women can become almost mundane in oppressive cultures. Though not an entertaining night at the movies, Mungiu's film conveys a harrowing vision that moves and deepens. You can catch it on the big screen in Portland and many other cities.

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