Monday, January 28, 2008

One word: Harrowing

Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is the new drama from Romania that was finally released in a limited run this past weekend. It is an intense movie and though there is hardly any blood, no explosions and no graphic depictions of sex to be found (I'm wary of saying as to whether or not there is in fact a murder) it will shake the very core of many a viewer. The story takes place in the final years of Nicolae Cearusescu and while I don't profess to being any sort of scholar on Romanian history I do know that this was not a good time to be Romanian. 4 Months revolves around the perils of a young woman attempting to procure an illegal abortion for her roommate under a corrupt communist regime. If the above description doesn't do anything for you I recommend you stop reading, no judgments here, check back later I'm sure there will be something about Amy Adams. But for you brave souls interested in a challenging, harrowing film-going experience read on.

What immediately strikes me about Mungiu's film is its unobtrusive but powerful style. Mungiu favors long static takes with medium shots. He firmly plants the camera and lets characters talk to each other for a while. He switches it up enough so that the proceedings never look like a play but he holds long enough for the viewer to get a sense of claustrophobia. It's a striking technique as the camera is always holding on our protagonist, Otilia (the marvelous Anamaria Marinca). By rarely letting Otilia escape the frame (and furthermore, rarely letting her escape the center of the frame) we get a sense of how trapped Otilia is by her decision to aide her roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). The audience is trapped too. This head on approach puts in our line of sight all manner of things that many will try to look away from.

Otilia is beset by one mini-disaster after another, in addition to having to come up with the money for the procedure she must book the hotel room (many are full or the reception desks are suspicious and unhelpful), deal with the chillingly direct Mr. Bebe the man who will perform the abortion (Bebe is a contender for the most frightening man in film to go along with Anton Chigurh and Daniel Plainview), cope with a boyfriend who calls her away at a critical moment so she can meet his parents and an assorted variety of horrors she could never have conceived and I'm not entirely comfortable discussing as I am still haunted by them. The film provides a deep, dark dread, the kind found in only the best thrillers. This is not a movie looking for jumps. Mingiu doesn't cut wildly, swing his camera or rely on ostanato strings. He merely presents all manner of unpleasantness and lets the audience try to find their own way to cope. Mingiu doesn't come down way or another on abortion. Rather he presents the procedure in great clinical detail and lets the audience come to their own conclusions. As I watched the film I found the character of Gabita to be whiny and infantile, her poor decision making and immaturity putting her and countless others in danger. But as my time away from the film grows I've grown sympathetic to her unenviable position. Consider that the Romanians were hardly providing alternatives for birth control during this period. Otilia poses the question of "what if" to her boyfriend during a harried conversation and in the end while an huge taboo, there seems to be no other tenable alternative, though the cost is terrible.

4 Months
is a movie made with great skill and dedication that will disturb and force it's viewers to asking their own questions and I think this is a commendable thing. There have been several movies this past year which skirted the issue of abortion but none force its audience to look the topic right in its face and ask "what if?"
One final note: The title of the film refers to how long Gabita has been pregnant. Knowing this gives the audience an additional piece of information that makes the "interview" with Mr. Bebe even MORE tense.

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