Tuesday, October 16, 2007

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

A film’s adornment with the Cannes Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) brings considerable expectations by an informed audience. When I saw Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, other than knowing it tackled the subject of abortion, and that it had won the Cannes top prize, I knew nothing about it.

The film is set in 1987, towards the end of the communist era, in Romania. Two women, friends sharing a university dormitory are planning something that is not immediately obvious. Gradually, we learn that Otilia is making arrangements for Gabita's clandestine and illegal abortion.

The opening scene’s use of shaky hand-held camera (a pet hate) gave me reservations that thankfully proved unfounded. The cinematography is generally excellent, and the cinéma vérité style produces a strong sense of reality and immediacy as we follow the characters. The apparent use of a digital camera allowed the flexibility to film within small rooms as if one were a fly on the wall witnessing the action. There are fabulous long takes in which we witness the unedited talent of the main actors who display excellent emotions and timing. Mungiu has selected an excellent cast and extracted remarkable performances that are both naturalistic and convincing.

There are various themes that the film covers or depicts:

  • pregnancy as the natural consequence of sex
  • the tendency of youth to disregard the consequences of sex
  • the corrupt nature of communism and how social repression pushes various activities underground
  • how impersonal was life under communism
  • most importantly, the terrible consequences of removing the availability of abortion as a legal option for women

As a youth, I remember my mother talking about the days when women risked death and abortionists risked jail (up to fifteen years in Victoria). Baby boomers and older may recall the name Dr. Bertram Wainer who campaigned for legal access to abortion in the 1960s and ‘70s. It all began in 1967 when he provided emergency treatment for a woman who had a backyard abortion.

Regardless of the morality or ethics of abortion, the social and other consequences of lack of access to it are just too great. This film clearly illustrates this point in a matter-of-fact manner without moralising or proselytising. Mungiu is neither promoting nor denouncing abortion. The film could even be used by so-called pro-lifers to attack abortion. Overwhelmingly, though, a reasonable person seeing this film would conclude that the social cost of banning abortion is too great. Those who would turn back the clock to those pre-Wainer days should go see this film and remind themselves what barbaric options women will take should abortion go underground again.

The only other film I can recall that tackles similar territory to this film was Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake. Both films are very different. Leigh’s film takes the perspective of the abortionist, a caring woman who performs what she considers an important social function for which she is punished. Vera Drake is more stylised than 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It is a powerful film, but is topped by this newer film.

Mungiu’s film is more realist, and takes the perspective of the pregnant woman (or rather the friend assisting the pregnant woman). The abortionist in the film, Mr. Bebe, is portrayed dispassionately and reasonably objectively. Some may see him as a pig of a man, greedy and uncaring. Some I have spoken to got that impression. I like Mungiu’s use of ambiguity. Mr. Bebe saw himself as a nice enough person and, while I don’t think he was as nice and altruistic as he may have like to convince himself, I do think there was some honorable intention there. Each viewer can ponder this.

The cultural aspect of the film is fascinating. The way individuals interact with each other, particularly on a professional level, affirms many films made in different communist countries at different times, by different directors and of different genres. When one person serves another in a shop or hotel, there is at best indifference or at worst contempt, rather than the service mentality that we expect. Bureacracy is everywhere and with it, distrust and demands for identity papers for nearly every trivial transaction.

The black market is everywhere in the film. People trade with a nod and a wink. Kent cigarettes are high in demand, and people go to great lengths and pay a small fortune to get them (it cost more for a packet of Kent as it did for a hotel room for a night). Perhaps it was an image thing.

Mungiu has stated that his film is not a critique of communism, but just a backdrop for a very personal story – the film depicts the experience of a friend of his. The credits in the film refer to Tales from the Golden Era, which seems at least a little sarcastic about life under communism.

Having seen the film twice (and it was at least as compelling on the second viewing), I found it interesting to note the way the relationship between the two women changes over the course of a day. The closing dialogue was one of the most poignant yet quietly understated endings I have seen in a film for a long time.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a profoundly moving and physically affecting film. It is social-realist film making at it’s very best. This is one of the best films of the year and I highly recommend it.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is screening exclusively at the Palace Como cinema and opens on Thursday.


Marina said...

Excellent, excellent critique. I'm rather jealous that the film is already playing in your area whereas I won't have a chance to revisit it for a few more months.

I was particularly interested in the way, as you mentioned, that the relationships play out and change throughout the film and my favourite moment comes when Otilia is having dinner with her boyfriend's family. I though that scene, and the way in which it was shot with Otilia seemingly trapped in this different world, was wonderful.

I'm really looking forward to seeing it again, this time, without a huge head blocking my view.

Paul Martin said...

Thanks for your comments, Marina. I take it you saw it at Toronto?

The time with the parents was interesting, and again the long static take. There was a lot of subtlety here where much can be gleaned about the relationships and the glimpse into that society, without it being spelt out.

I rarely see a film twice, but I'm looking forward to seeing this for a third time (and I'll get it on DVD when it's available).

Matt Riviera said...

Indeed, what a film! Brilliantly executed, expertly acted and profoundly affecting.

I'm not sure where you see "the honourable intention" in the character of Bebe. I certainly couldn't see it, and I'm not sure I can find anything approaching honour in a man able to justify what is, for all intents and purposes, rape.

In fact I thought Bebe was one of the most chilling villains in recent film history, precisely because of how he uses his twisted logic and position of power to bully the girls into giving him what he wants. A great metaphor for the communist state?

That dinner scene is absolutely amazing, layers upon layers of suggested meaning in an otherwise oh-so-simple static shot. It's so inspiring to see films which are so richly satisfying while adhering closely to understated social-realism.

Paul Martin said...

Matt, I found the character of Bebe quite ambiguous. The actor was fantastic, and I thought the difference between how he saw himself and how we saw him added a depth of intrigue.

While Bebe was described as a pig (and I can see that as a reasonable response), he is a product of a society that forces certain activities underground. (Perhaps that's why there are these recurring black-marketeers.) We see Bebe relating to his mother at the start - he seems to me a fairly ordinary guy caught up in a messy business for which there are serious repercussions. He's no good guy, but he's not an archetypal cinematic 'baddie'.

I'm a big fan of social realist films like this one, and am heartened that others were able to appreciate some of the same strengths in this stand-out film. The Jammed has recently done quite well, but it was no-where near as well executed as this film. There are only two prints in the country (I saw the very first screening of the Melbourne print, the day after it arrived in the country). My hope is that it will do well enough that the distributor (Kojo) will buy some more prints so it can get a wider distribution.

It's interesting that this film won the Palme d'Or, not that it didn't deserve it, but usually it goes to someone who is better known.

Filmnut said...

As far as I am aware, the film is screening on one screen in Melbourne and one screen in Sydney. If the film does well there then it will probably go to other states. If it bombs then it probably won't.

A few months agao, I saw another social realist Romanian film called The Death of Mr Lazarescu on DVD which was quite a long film running for 150 minutes and basically dealing with the atrocious health system in Romania as an elderly man is shabbily treated for his medical condition. Not surprisingly, the film has not been released here as it's a very tough watch but quite rewarding if you stick with it. The film did receive great critical reviews in the US when released (Film Comment had it as their best film of last year) but still failed miserably at the US box office.

Paul Martin said...

That's pretty much correct, Filmnut, though the publicist indicated to me that if it does well, they may get some more prints. This is a film that serious audiences will relish, so I'm hoping that people do come and support films like this. That way, it encourages the distributors to back more films like it.

Y Kant Goran Rite said...

All those stars from David & Margaret is bound to help it out.
I've already raved about this film but I don't want to stop. It's a masterpiece and I feel honoured to share a planet with Christian Mungiu

Paul Martin said...

It's nice that you feel that way about Mungiu, Goran, and it's heartening that others recognise the value in films like this.

filmnut said...

Film sounds good so hopefully I will be able to check it out before it disappears from the screen. It's good that the film doesn't take sides because both arguments are valid. However, in the end, abortion has to be legal and done properly by professionals. The main problem that causes debate are the large amounts of late-term abortions. There are cases where the embryos are formed to an extent where it is a baby who, once extracted, is merely left on a table to die even though it may be crying. This is barbaric. However, abortions are obviously necessary when the woman falls pregnant as a victim of a sexual crime.

Paul Martin said...

Filmnut, I'm going to go out on a limb and state my opinion. I am personally against abortion, and believe abortion at any stage is taking human life. But I am even more in support of choice in deference to my own opinion. I recognise that there are many situations (rape is but one) where going full-term is the greater of two evils.

filmnut said...

I don't think you are going out ona limb at all, Paul. I think most sane and sensible people will agree that abortion is a barbaric act of cruelty and should only be taken in extreme circumstances rather than at the whims of the woman or couple who may not be quite ready yet to have a baby. Women have castigated me many times as they declare well it's their body and their right. That's fine but someone has to fight for the right to live for the baby or embryo whichever way you wnat to put it. I defy anyone to agree that late term abortions should be allowed with crying foetuses left to die on a table.

Paul Martin said...

Filmnut, I don't want to go into the realm of late-term abortion, as it is widely accepted as unethical (at least). As depicted in the film, the punishment for late-term abortion is not for abortion, but for murder.

I was talking more about abortion in general, meaning within whatever is generally the generally accepted legal time-frame (and I don't know what that is in this country). I don't know if it is a 'barbaric act of cruelty', but I do know that women do not take this upon themselves lightly. I have already stated my position, yet I supported two different women, who made the choice to terminate their pregnancies. And the women I know who have had abortions have not done so without some grief for the lost child.