4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
(Christian Mungiu, Rom, 2007)
Where social realism meets Hostel: a terrifying thriller that acts as a valuable lesson in remembering the horrors of Romania’s recent past
So much has changed in world history over the past two decades that it scarcely seems conceivable that European countries were once under the rule of scarily oppressive Communist states, but a run of trailblazing movies from those countries are making sure that this recent history isn’t forgotten. First, The Lives of Others showed (with a clarity and honesty that would have been impossible for filmmakers at the time) how high-profile dissidence in East Germany was stopped in its tracks by the secret police. Now, over the border in Romania, Christian Mungiu has delivered an even starker look at a society in which ordinary citizens are in danger for the simplest of transgressions.
The story couldn’t be simplier – Anamaria Marinca’s Otilia helps her pregnant friend Gabita to arrange an abortion – but the result shows a whole world trying to survive in the shadow of tyranny. This is about a world where Communism, far from empowering society, has broken it into a submissive stupor. Entrepreneurial spirit hasn’t been stamped out but driven underground, and the have/have not divide is even more pronounced down there. The black market might be wryly charming when it’s a case of students trying to make a fast buck by selling toiletries on the sly; but it’s less so when the price of getting an illegal abortion is more than you were prepared to pay. Hollywood has taken to blithely pretending that abortion isn’t an issue by joking about it in the likes of Knocked Up and Juno; this film highlights the painful reality that emerges when choice isn’t an option.
The result is an extraordinary, feel-bad thriller, as nerve-wracking and upsetting as that wrist-slitting classic of despair, Lilya 4-Ever. Mungiu never resorts to shock tactics, but ratchets up the tension incrementally through the sheer horror of the narrative. The story is effectively split into three sections: before, during and after, and it’s debatable which is the hardest to watch. The ‘Before’ section sees Otilia finalising the preparations, little realising that Gabita’s fear and bad luck are conspiring to make things go a lot less smoothly than anticipated. ‘During’ is a bravura, near-real time ordeal as the girls haggle with the coldly matter-of-fact abortionist: a terrifying banal study in mercenary economics by Vlad Ivanov, which makes Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake look as realistic as Tolkien. ‘After’ come the aftershocks, as Otilia tries in vain to carry on with her normal life in the face of what’s happened, but realizes her world has been destroyed in the one hour that the film’s title has subliminally counted down to.
In subject matter, and the naturalistic performances, it’s standard issue, Ken Loach-esque social realism. But in Mungiu’s bold shooting style, it takes on the claustrophobia of a nightmare. Mungiu shoots in long, coffin-shaped widescreen, and his long takes zero in on specific details and refuse to let go. Much of the drama occurs off-camera, leaving us to watch the reactions of characters, chiefly Otilia, and never being quite sure what’s lurking in the shadows: a lengthy sequence near the end, simply following her along dark, deserted streets, is like something out of Halloween. Marinca gives an extraordinary, fearless close-up performance, letting the enormity of the situation wash over her in waves of regret and pain. Most compelling of all is a five minute plus shot of her sitting silently amidst her boyfriend’s jovial family and friends, living a real-time purgatory.
That scene, and others, show a society trying to keep the wolves at bay by closing their eyes, inuring themselves through drink and laughter against the risk of thinking out of turn. But, just as we later see a wedding party interrupted by a fight, the joviality is forced and false: the product of a collectively repressed psyche. Mungiu, cruelly, sets the action in 1987: within a few years, we know that youngsters like Otilia would rise up and demand a better world (and one where you’d imagine they’d at least have the option to travel somewhere where they could get an abortion). But that idyll is out of the grasp of the characters here, and Mungiu’s insistent, immersive lesson is to condemn the society that spent too long skulking in the shadows to prevent tragedies like the one that occurs here.
Original review June 2008 @ Simon Kinnear
Tagged World Cinema