Political probe

Pub date January 30, 2008
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

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Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the final anxiety-ridden whimper to register from the year of the "shmashmortion," and it’s particularly preoccupied with pregnancy and the decisions that come with it. There was an apparently very good doc about abortion politics and some movie about a waitress that I didn’t see, but I caught the two "Papa Don’t Preach" comedies we all went to and can’t say I see much to link those two with Mungiu’s excellent Romanian film.

It was often observed that the dollhouse pregnancies and abortion debates of Juno and Knocked Up — movies that both oscillated between very good and unwatchable — would never have been fodder for a Hollywood (or Hollywood-lite) comedy if the mothers weren’t white and middle-class. The expecting character in 4 Months wouldn’t have looked out of place in either of those films, but her predicament is wildly different. She has to make her decision in Romania in 1986, under the watchful eye of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship, whose policies on abortion make the pressures of the current American culture wars — certainly as experienced by the heroines of Juno and Knocked Up — comparable to those of a celebrity roast. Mungiu’s movie differs, additionally, in a refreshingly depressing way: you kind of want to smack the mother.

Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) isn’t even the film’s core. That distinction goes to her college roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), who’s relied on to handle nearly every level of preparation necessary for an illegal abortion, from the Kafkaesque frustrations of securing a hotel room to the frightening process of meeting and negotiating with the abortionist. Everyone in Otilia’s unpleasant story is to some degree selfish and irresponsible, and Gabita is no exception. The ultimate impression she gives is of being the kind of person Otilia will never be able to truly feel good about sacrificing so much for. Otilia will always feel vaguely duped.

If 4 Months is only nominally related to those American comedies, its connections with another recent Romanian film about the Ceausescu era, the sad and funny 12:08 East of Bucharest, are just as tangential. Though the titles of both films, interestingly, suggest an obsession with a ticking clock, 12:08 East of Bucharest uses it as an almost absurdist device in relation to a bystander’s attempt to find a personal foothold in history. The characters in 4 Months are all getting more personal history than they could possibly handle, much less want.

Mungiu’s movie is much closer kin, then, to fellow Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu’s dark wonder The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which was also shot by cinematographer Oleg Mutu. Both are gloomy, virtuosic naturalist films inseparable from their sociopolitical backdrops — in Lazarescu‘s case, Bucharest in the middle of this decade — and both traverse their stations through a soup of reluctant humanism and outright moral fatigue. 4 Months feels like a companion piece to Lazarescu, the latter being a tour of the indignities of the Romanian medical bureaucracy and the former negotiating a similar path through the black-market system created in response to those inadequacies of officialdom.

What separates the two primarily and acutely is the distinct emotional tangs brought about by the way they were shot and edited. Lazarescu works with short, unassuming shots (save for the final, fatalistic scene); 4 Months, on the other hand, encumbers the audience with claustrophobically long takes, filled with the tension not only of Otilia’s widening burden but also of the actors sustaining such choreographed naturalism.

The most ambitious example of these crosscurrents is a conceptually ostentatious dinner scene at the birthday party for Otilia’s boyfriend’s mother, into which Otilia must detour before returning to the evening’s greater exigencies. Traumatized and anxious to return to Gabita, she is stuck for the moment in the cross fire of unwittingly oppressive small talk. Though there is a whiff of contrivance in the scene (Lazarescu, marching along its downward spiral with its head bowed, elicits more sympathy by making less conspicuous appeals), it moves quickly beyond a one-note dark joke simply by persisting. Otilia stares off ahead while the surrounding actors deliver their lines at her — in a manner closer to living than acting — in a long, confining take.

Stubbornly stationary, this sequence is as impressive as that famous kinetic take in Children of Men. And the subtleties of the conversation, together with a chillingly apropos conversation with her boyfriend shortly after (he’s a massive shit, but is she also covering her bases?), prove the party to be less a dramatic contrast with the preceding events across town than a thickening of the septic social context in which those events occur. It is, as much as abortion, what the film is about.


Opens Fri/1 in Bay Area theaters