4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile
Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 21 October 2007
Source IFC First Take 35mm print
Categories The 32nd Toronto International Film Festival
The title of Cristian Mungiu’s Palm d’Or-winning film simultaneously suggests we are in the midst of an unavoidable countdown towards an appallingly painful event, while also measuring with clinical accuracy the amount of time that has passed since the conception of the fetus that the story revolves around. Alas, unlike the meticulous filmmaking that Mungiu applies throughout the film, very little within the narrative is ever granted the same level of precision enjoyed by the title. Without offering his audience a single moment of reprieve, Mungiu’s illustration of abortion as an altogether messy business is persistently grim and feels painstakingly realistic, and the austere style that the director strictly applies conveys a ceaseless dread that imbues even the most mundane moments with an excruciating tension. As implied by the title, the relentless stress is a direct symptom of how precious time has become within this stern period of Romania’s history, with an impending political and economic collapse only a few years away. Once Mungiu blends this grave sense of urgency with the ominous sensation of inevitable despair that permeates through his film, the result is an extraordinarily unusual horror film, in which the presence that continually threatens our protagonists is inescapable simply because it has completely ingrained itself into the surrounding environment.
The first film in a series entitled the Tales from the Golden Age, Mungiu has referred to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as a period piece since it takes place within the decaying architecture and crumbling infrastructure that typify the bleak and desolate urban landscape of Romania in the late 1980s during the final few years of Nicolae Ceausescu’s seemingly endless dictatorship. Shifts in Romania’s political climate have made the central scenario of Mungiu’s story somewhat obsolete, as the abortions that were outlawed in 1966 in order to increase the population became more accessible after Ceausescu’s regime was toppled in 1989. However, Mungiu appears more concerned with the struggles of Romania citizens forced to wander into the fringes of society to survive within these constrictive circumstances than he does about any imminent financial or political turmoil that will soon alter the society. Though Mungiu purposely remains vague about his subject matter during the introduction, the story of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days appears simple enough, as the film chronicles the efforts of two female university students to secure an illegal abortion over the course of a standard Saturday. However, the women repeatedly become entangled by their naïve decisions while confronting various complications that further escalate their suffering.
Ingeniously avoiding the natural tendency to focus upon the pregnant girl about to endure an agonizing procedure, Mungiu instead concentrates his story upon Otilia, a young woman willing to wade through any administrative red-tape to help her capricious roommate, Gabita, procure an underground abortion. Portrayed by Anamaria Marinca, Otilia would be a secondary character within any other film, tossed onto the sidelines while we would concentrate on Laura Vasiliu’s performance as Gabita, the flaky expecting mother who is entirely unprepared for the events she is about to encounter. Instead, Mungiu synchronizing Otilia’s spectator status with the audience’s role as an outside observer, in effect allowing Otilia to act as the audience’s surrogate, thereby permitting the viewer to appreciate her infinite humanity, remarkable devotion, and astonishing sacrifice, while adopting her uneasy viewpoint and noticeable trepidation towards the circumstances that have ensnared her unexpectedly.
Mungiu spends a significant portion of his film following Otilia as she negotiates over various goods and services, including a routine swapping of typical household items by students at the dormitory and an everyday exchange for a pack of banned cigarettes with a harmless merchant. Later, Otilia haggles over a hotel room with an apathetic hotel clerk so that the crude operation can occur in a secure location, allowing Gabita to rest afterwards away from any inquisitive dormitory neighbours. These tedious negotiations may appear superfluous, but they serve as a numbing preamble to a truly torturous trade that follows. Mungiu’s attention to these transactions emphasizes the rigid restrictions imposed upon Romanians within Ceausescu’s communist economy, wherein almost any ordinary item appears to have been deemed as contraband. Given that we routinely witness Romanian citizens bartering for everyday products, it appears that the country’s basic economic infrastructure has been considerably crippled. Thus, while money remains valuable due to its scarcity, we quickly comprehend that almost everything has turned into a commercial commodity, including the female body.
Gabita’s decision to terminate her pregnancy requires her to enlist the services of a black-market practitioner. Referred throughout the film as Bebe, the man initially appears benign enough, but after promptly assessing his situation and grasping the inexperience of his captive clientele, he calmly exploits his position as the only illicit specialist that Gabita and Otilia can afford. Given Bebe’s escalating reluctance to perform his obligation without adequate compensation, which is compounded by Gabita’s naïveté in attempting to understand Bebe’s vague demands, Otilia assumes control of the desperate negotiations with Bebe over the terms of their transaction until both women come to the terrifying realization that more money will not satisfy their tyrant’s appetite. Instead, we suddenly descend into disorder as we finally comprehend that Bebe requires both women to sacrifice their dignity. Apparently his gratification, at the expense of their degradation, appears to be his only source of fulfilment. Vlad Ivanov is suitably chilling in his performance as the debased doctor, monstrous and serene while he monotonously justifies his despicable requests. After already donating her meagre funds to help solve Gabita’s crisis and having accompanied her fragile friend all through this ordeal, it is at this particular point that we truly realize the depths of Otilia’s unyielding loyalty to her best friend.
If viewers have been able to accept Mungiu’s severe story and straightforward style up to this point (and the woman sitting beside me during the press screening quickly exited once confronted with the frank nature of Mungiu’s content), the dealings between our female protagonists and Bebe serve as the first of three specific scenes within 4 Months that leave a lasting impression on audiences and thereby demonstrate the effectiveness of the director’s methods. In terms of technique, Mungiu’s film is an exquisite exhibition of simple tactics, such as extended takes, basic angles, and medium-length framing, yielding extraordinary results. Within almost every scene, Mungiu is able to expertly ring out every last drop of anguish and tension, even while he details the most mundane minutiae. Devoid of any musical score and allowing entire sequences to transpire in a single-take with a meagre amount of dialogue, the film truly transcends its modest components, instead relying on the actors’ understated fluctuations in demeanour to skilfully depict the distress that the characters constantly experience. Indeed, the collective effect of such sequences is mesmerizing when capturing moments of spontaneity within its stringent design.
Perhaps the most brilliant illustration of Mungiu’s methods is a sequence he assembles involving a dinner-party which Otilia feels obligated to attend. After engaging in a faintly terse discussion with Gabita regarding both the recommendation of Bebe by an acquaintance and Gabita’s haphazard disclosure of their activities, Otilia reluctantly leaves the unpleasant scene within the hotel room to travel across town to the home of her boyfriend Adi’s parents. Adi wishes to use the mother’s birthday party as an occasion to acquaint Otilia to his parents, and while Otilia grudgingly attends at Adi’s insistence, her mind understandably wanders elsewhere. In what is certain to be Mungiu’s most celebrated composition, the director places Otilia at the center of his frame at an intermediate distance while she sits silently at the end of the table, squeezed in between Adi’s family and their friends, while an obviously agitated Adi is perched behind her, apparently frustrated by Otilia’s tardy arrival and disconnected attitude. As the other guests continue their clamorous conversation and energetically swirl around her, Otilia essentially remains still throughout the discussion, even when the topics of the boisterous banter concern the restricted employment options of females. Though the premise of the sequence is simple, Mungiu’s choice to extend the scene to such unfathomable lengths instils what would otherwise be viewed as a trivial scene with an unbearable anxiety, thus successfully creating a suffocating experience for both his characters and viewers. Even though the audience may demand that he keep his narrative moving forward, Mungiu’s focus remains firmly fixed, unwilling to move his camera or adjust his lens, thereby physically and figuratively trapping Otilia within a dormant image at this irrelevant location. Meanwhile our minds match Otilia’s thoughts of the grave conditions at a distant off-screen location, imagining and potential complications that could be occurring at this very moment, which we are temporarily unable to influence.
The discomforting dinner-party sequence is a wonderful fusion of form and content, but the scene is merely one of many instances in which Mungiu uses his oppressive and severe style to confine his female characters within his frame in order to convey the limitations imposed upon the women within this restrictive society. One such moment occurs at the conclusion of Otilia’s initial meeting with Adi, where it appears to be a conscious decision to visually imprison Otilia briefly behind the lattice lining of a Plexiglas window. To further his concept, Mungiu deliberately includes several scenes in which we follow Otilia down confining corridors that constrict her movement to a specific path, thereby mimicking the social restrictions forced upon females within Ceausescu’s communist society.
Possibly more impressive is Mungiu’s ability to stress the permanent sensation of peril that his female characters must contend with in every scene, whether provided by the temporary threat of a predatory male presence or the incessant fear of being discovered and apprehended by authorities. Escorting Otilia from the dismal images of daylight into the sinister shadows on night, the menace that saturates the atmosphere is no accident on Mungiu’s part. The director carefully places distractions that both underline the vulnerability of his female characters and accentuate our sense of enduring danger, such as Otilia pocketing an instrument from Bebe’s briefcase apparently for protection, or the obscured male figure that supposedly stalks Otilia along dark city streets as she marches to a bus stop, or the indifferent male hotel desk clerk informing Otilia of a forgotten identification card and requesting additional information to verify her identity.
Nevertheless, as much as Mungiu will be lauded for these examples of his filmmaking prowess, he will probably be maligned for his most shocking creative decision, which many have already labelled as an unnecessarily sensational “money shot.” If there are a handful of scenes 4 Months will become famous for, the image that greets us in the hotel bathroom will certainly be the most memorable for its ghastly reveal. However, the accusations that the scene is needlessly gratuitous are entirely unwarranted in my opinion, because Mungiu fully comprehends the moral connotations of constructing and displaying such an image. Traditional film theory extols the virtue of hinted horror that remains off-screen and unseen, claiming subtle insinuation demonstrates sophisticated filmmaking skills, basically because it allows our imagination to envision the unspeakable acts that the narrative only implies. Such concepts have plenty of substantiation, but there also remains a moral imperative, if not an outright obligation, for filmmakers to honestly address their subject matter and confront horrific images directly in order to convey the intense consequences of their characters’ actions. In 4 Months Mungiu makes a deliberate decision to take something that everyone - including the characters, audience, and the filmmakers themselves - has thus far treated as an abstract concept into something absolutely tangible that requires us to actually deal with openly rather than treat as the theoretical dilemma. It’s definitely a creative choice that could make or break the audience’s reception towards the film, but Mungiu’s moral conviction appears carefully considered rather than arbitrarily lurid. Thus, Mungiu’s bathroom floor image also acts as a startling retort to those who insist that his film isn’t actually an abortion movie.
Mungiu certainly crafts 4 Months to function on many different levels; the film is concurrently a searing rebuke of the strategies applied by Ceausescu’s political machine, a universal demonstration of the female solidarity required to survive within alienating circumstance, and a perfectly paced procedural about overcoming the sadistic tangle of bureaucracy determined to diminish the power to the individual. However, despite these varying interpretations of Mungiu’s film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days also provides a strong statement regarding abortion that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially considering that Mungiu has mentioned that during this dour and decrepit period within Romania’s history the act of seeking an abortion lost its moral connotation and became as much a political action against Ceausescu’s policies as a medical necessity. With this idea in mind, Mungiu decision to include such a disturbing image within his film feels entirely appropriate, since he has treated his subject matter with abundant respect. As unsettling as the bathroom floor image may be, it serves as a reminder that if we decide to fight for a woman’s right to have authority of her body, we are not only obligated to comprehend the cost of our choices, but must also be prepared to deal with the moral and corporeal consequences of our judgment, no matter how physically traumatic or emotionally devastating such experiences may feel. Therefore, Mungiu’s politically-loaded and emotionally-charged image, as well as his entire film, is not only incredibly potent, but also absolutely necessary.
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