Cristian Mungiu’s beautiful and harrowing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palm D’or at Cannes and Best Film at the European Film Awards, yet didn’t even make the short list for Best Foreign Language Film nominations. I can’t fathom this defiant snubbing of such a powerful and provocative film, unless it has something to do with the subject matter.
In this socialist state, the culture has devolved into barter. Everything is a negotiation, from getting a hotel room to bribing a ticket inspector on the bus, with cigarettes proffered as signals to begin negotiations and left as tips. College students Otilia and Gabita learn that when the stakes get higher – and things don’t get much heavier than an abortion, which is illegal in 1987 Romania – the costs go way beyond bribes and under-the-table payments.
It’s a devastating ordeal by itself and the film doesn’t pretend otherwise, but the whole subterranean aspect of this underground operation, with the surreptitious bookings and secret meetings under the snooping noses of hotel clerks collecting ID cards and taking names, gives it the stakes of an espionage drama behind the iron curtain. It’s only the chillingly mundane atmosphere and the snide civil servant attitude of the players that tells us this is the everyday reality of life here.
The long takes are not of the dazzlingly dramatic and cinematically acrobatic variety, that whisk the viewer into the thrill of the momentum and beauty of the composition. Mungiu uses the camera to focus our attention, and he keeps it on characters, on interactions, on scenes to keep us as trapped as the two girls are. The wide cinemascope format, so often reserved for films of open vistas and magnificent landscapes where the possibilities are limitless, becomes a cage. Not claustrophobic or oppressive, but unyielding, and it won’t let us look away until it’s time. There’s much less editing by design, but the cuts are perfect, and they drive the film into the next scene like a spike.
Mungiu offers up acerbic commentary when he calls the film one of his “Tales From the Golden Age,” but there’s nothing satirical or sardonic about the story or the drama, and none of the sentimental East German “Estalgia” for the good old days of comforting Communist rule in sight.
I reviewed the film for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:
Set in 1987 in the last days of the Ceausescu dictatorship in Romania, it follows — in a series of mesmerizing long takes and real-time scenes — the efforts of a college girl arranging an illegal abortion for her roommate. It confronts the polarizing issue, which even the most liberal-minded Hollywood films shy away from, without flinching or turning away from the personal and physical devastation of the ordeal.
Anamaria Marinca is heartbreaking as the young woman who hardens herself to pick up the pieces dropped by her flighty, helplessly flailing friend (Laura Vasiliu), scrambling to keep her composure while surreptitiously booking a hotel room under the snooping noses of clerks collecting ID cards and taking names. It could be an espionage drama behind the Iron Curtain, but for the mundane atmosphere and cool indifference that reminds us that this is not an adventure, this is their life.
See the complete review here.
I also interviewed the director, Cristian Mungiu, in a long-distance phone conversation. I had been scheduled for 10-15 minutes but we talked for almost half an hour. Highlights from the interview are in the P-I:
On the film’s subject matter:
I was born in 1968 and this makes me part of the baby boom that was generated in Romania because of this law from 1966 that banned abortion there. I always start from a true story, I don’t make up things, and I ran into this girl again that had told me this story some 15 years ago. And I had this revelation that for a generation that came into this world because abortion was banned, that would be a very relevant story.
On the story of the two young women:
Honestly, it came from the real story, but at the same time, I wanted to portray two different attitudes belonging to the period regarding the way in which people would cope with things. It’s difficult to say which of these two girls is better adapted for the society in which they live. As much as Otilia makes the decisions and negotiates everything, she pays a bigger price than the girl who undergoes the abortion.
Also reviewed this week is the mundane family comedy Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins with Martin Lawrence.
“Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins” is one of those family reunion comedies centered on the oddball who returns home to show off his success, but the film doesn’t play to its strengths. Lawrence never finds the balance between the poised personality he dons for his TV role and the picked-on little brother who falls right back into old patterns of humiliation and retaliation
The film squanders James Earl Jones in an underwritten role as Roscoe’s unimpressed papa. And Malcolm D. Lee directs in the semaphore approach to comic performance: playing every gesture big enough to be seen from miles away.
More interesting is a pair of “limited run” films playing for a week apiece here in Seattle this weekend, which I reviewed in capsules. Here are some extended thoughts on The Rape of Europa.
“What is more important, a work of art or a human life?” The documentary does not attempt to answer the question, posed rhetorically by one of the men who was charged with securing and repatriating recovered artworks looted by the Nazis or damaged in combat. But it shows that the question has a deeper connection to individual and cultural identity beyond the reverence of celebrated paintings and sculptures of European history, past and present.
Like the art galleries and collection citied in the film, the story of how Europe’s great works of art were systematically looted by the Nazis in World War II and taken back to Germany for Hitler’s fantasy of a super museum and Herman Goring’s private collection is the dramatic centerpiece of this documentary. Returning the pieces that escaped the wartime repatriation is called “unfinished business in the greatest war in history” in the film’s narration, a claim I can’t fully embrace (see opening rhetorical question) but acknowledge in the deeper that the documentary reveals through the course of the dynamic story.
It’s not just about the Nazi looting of Europe’s treasures, but the meaning of World War II itself. The story of Nazi Germany’s industrialized pillage of conquered countries goes much deeper to expose a chilling facet of Hitler’s final solution: the systematic eradication of Jewish and Slavic culture from top to bottom, as if to sweep away all vestiges of the races Hitler deemed inferior.
My review is here.
Also reviewed is Francisco Vargas’ The Violin from Mexico.
In the isolated mountain villages of rural Mexico, itinerant father-and-son musicians ride to the local town (full of cheap bars and cheaper sex) to play for tips and pass on messages to the underground rebel movement. It’s ostensibly set in the 1970s Guerrero rebellion, but filmmaker Francisco Vargas’ references are rather obscure. For the rest of us, this stunning black-and-white tale of resistance takes place in an unnamed military dictatorship in which impoverished peasants and simple farmers battle armed soldiers who raze villages and torture captives…. It’s all stripped down to a conflict more abstract than historical, a fable of heroic defiance in the face of brutal oppression. Vargas trades complexity for power.
See complete review here.