Friday, January 25, 2008

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" -- * * * 1/2

A bleak, truthful depiction of the limited options available during communist rule in Romania, Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is, when simplified, a movie about abortion, but it's really an exploration of larger issues, and a human story above all else. Though never exploitative, and filled with the utmost respect for its characters, weak-stomached/minded/willed viewers may instinctively want to steer clear, and understandably so. It's a grim, emotionally draining work for sure, but it never goes for the pounding-you-into-submission route, and is infinitely rewarding and compelling.

Like sheep who need to clearly divest a "message," I think people are going to feel the need to read their own politics or views on abortion into the film, but Mungiu makes great efforts to not imbue it with his own. It's simply a story about the relationship between two friends, and we're left to to our own thoughts. The film is neither pro-choice nor pro-life, though each side could easily make their case; you could argue it's an examination of the dehumanizing effects of abortion, or that it's about what happens to a society when back-alley abortions are the only option a woman has. Personally, the abortion issue is fairly important to me, but if I learned Mungiu was pro-life or pro-choice, it wouldn't really change my thoughts on the film, and I'd still consider it a mightily impressive work.

Set in 1987 under Russian rule, we start off witnessing two college roommates, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) routinely packing their bag, including soap, cigarettes and homework, for a trip the two are making together. In the first half hour, we're not entirely sure what's going on as we methodically follow Otilia as she has difficulties with transportation and confirming the hotel room Gabita has booked. We only slowly realize that all these arrangements are being made for an underground abortion that's been arranged for Gabita (abortions were a crime in Romania from 1966 to 1989).

The man hired by Gabita is the ironically-named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), an imposing brute who radiates menace and seems to unsettle the two women with every sentence he speaks. It soon becomes clear that Gabita has so fucked up Bebe's specific instructions, from booking a room at the wrong hotel to lying about the extent of her pregnancy (see the film's title), which promotes the performing of the abortion from a jailable offense to a murder charge. Uneasily pleading and negotiating with Bebe, the two women strive to find an agreement on what would make performing the procedure worth his while, and try to make it through this day with their lives and souls intact.

The film establishes a profound kind of intensity throughout, keying us in to everything these characters are going through. I don't know if I would quite use the word suspense, but there's an always prevalent sense of discomfort and unease established by the unobtrusive, almost clinical approach. Partially due to an uncertainly where things were going to lead, my stomach was in knots for pretty much the entire running time. The screenplay plants tantalizing seeds of thriller/melodrama elements (such as Otilia swiping a knife from Bebe's case), but they don't pay off in any real way, instead being utilized as effective red herrings in a film that's all about real world atmosphere. There are no melodramatic turns here; rather, the film depicts an experience that was likely akin to what many women experienced at the time. Appropriately, there are no stabs at levity whatsoever, and the film seems to have been drained of any primary colors.

Mungiu has stated that he took numerous steps to create a heightened state of truthfulness and get rid of all elements that would create the appearance of filmmaking conventions or anything besides reality. Keeping with this, there is absolutely no music in the film, and Mungiu's minimalist technique strips everything down to its bare essentials, never showing us more than is absolutely necessary in any given sequence. This often results with us just seeing some thing's aftermath, or just enough to determine what has happened without being explicitly shown. However, there's a startling image late in the film that haunts but I still can't determine whether it's utilized cheaply as shock value, or serves a grander purpose. In keeping with the film's unwavering devotion to the truth, every scene is shot in a single take, and in most, the camera doesn't even move.

The approach is extremely effective, but never moreso than during the film's most memorable scene, a birthday party sequence in the third act that's a tour-de-force of unspoken emotion, dread and filmmaking technique. After the initial ordeal she's been through with Gabita, Otilia attends her boyfriend's mother's birthday party, and a wide shot shows her battered, drained presence in a sea of oblivious, beatifically cheerful partygoers. The shot goes on for an almost unbearably long time and the longer it goes, the more palpable Otilia's misery becomes in contrast to the exuberance around her.

Though Vasiliu is good as the pregnant Gabita, Mungiu makes the decision to tell this story from the perspective of Otilia, and the film is more resonant for it. Marinca gives a tremendous, brave performance, carrying the bulk of the film's weight on her shoulders, while drawing us into Otilia's plight in scene after scene. As we witness the gradual disintegration of her sense of hope, while showcasing fearless resilience throughout, the actress fearlessly and unfailingly conveys worlds about her character, often without saying a word. Ivanov is also outstanding as the cold, monstrous Bebe. Whether flying off the handle, or barely raising his voice, we're always convinced that he knows exactly what he's doing, and that makes the predatory surgeon even more frightening. Even though he's only in the film for a short period, his presence carries over the entirety, and his matter-of-fact demeanor leaves a chilling impression.

After winning the Cannes Film Festival's Palme D'or, and given its ecstatic critical reception over the last half year or so, "4 Months" was rightfully considered the frontrunner to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Film this year. Well, for reasons only known to the nominating committee, it didn't even make their eligible shortlist (nor did other presumed frontrunners "Persepolis" and "The Orphanage"), let alone their final nominated five. Even putting aside the film's award-level quality, this ignorant oversight is a particular shame because this is the kind of difficult, demanding work that really needed Oscar attention to get the high-minded crowd's butts in seats. IFC Films obviously knew this, as I assume their decision to open the film in the United States this week was made in presumption of the film receiving a nomination on Tuesday. With any luck, the continuation of the film's rapturous reviews will be enough to get at least some people in the theater.

As you've probably gathered, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is not a film that can be described as a pleasure; rather, it's a tense experience that will leave most viewers shaken. It asks a lot of the audience, without much of a catharsis or emotional resolution, but it's never less than compelling, and devastating as it casts a haunting spell. This is practically the definition of 'not for everyone' but it's a tremendously powerful, impressive achievement that demands to be seen by any serious filmgoer.

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" opens today in two theaters exclusively in New York (the IFC center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas), and expands to major markets (including Los Angeles, Washington D.C., and Long Island) on February 1st. Sadly, if you live in a small town, it's probably never going to open in a theater near you, though the film will be available OnDemand on various cable systems starting today.


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