Thursday, February 21, 2008
Everything in the waning days of Nikolai Ceausescu's oppressive regime proves to be a negotiation, whether it's dealing with haughty hotel clerks, bartering for soap and cigarettes, or haggling over the price of an abortion. Each negotiation is further complicated by bureaucratic mix ups, black market scams, and incessant I.D. checks. All this plays out like a tense thriller as Otilia struggles to help her friend. Actress Anamaria Marinca plays Otilia. She says that when you live under Communist rule, you quickly learn how to navigate uncertain terrain.
"We lived in a society where lies were daily necessities," says the actress, "You were taught how to lie from an early age. I remember I was eleven when communism collapsed, but I was already aware of what I was allowed to say in public or how to protect my parents, how not to repeat what I hear at home. We were trained to have this double life from a very early age."
Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (IFC Films)
Director Cristian Mungiu's visual style is a direct reaction to that way of living. His long static takes with no edits reveal a desire to NOT manipulate his material. If living under communism was about learning to lie, Mungiu's film is all about finding the truth. His film unfolds with a graceful realism, as if he just happened to catch life unfolding for these two desperate women. His film never hits a false note and never attempts to pass judgment whether he's documenting Otilia's search for cigarettes or observing Gabita's abortion.
Take a claustrophobic scene at a crowded dinner table. Otilia has reluctantly left her friend recovering from the abortion at the hotel. Now Otilia joins her boyfriend at his mother's birthday party. A static shot places Otilia at the center of the dinner table as her boyfriend's parents -- one at each side of her -- inspect her. We observe the scene and can watch either the scrutinizing parents or Otilia's mounting tension as her discomfort with the family grows, and her concerns about her friend overwhelm her.
Marinca says the director uses the camera as a means of observation: "The camera becomes the instrument observing this internal turmoil of the characters. It allows the spectator the chance to choose what he wants to look at. To make his own decisions and to judge for himself what's important and where the truth is actually."
That's a stylistic choice also favored by the directors of both The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (which has the same cinematographer in Oleg Mutu) and 12:08 East of Bucharest . It's a choice that reveals their distrust for the way images can be used and manipulated. These filmmakers' refusal to manipulate also extends to the emotions in their films. Mungiu, according to Marinca "strove to avoid melodramatic terms or sentimentality. It's not about that. It's about emotion coming from the meaning, not from the tears. It's very easy to make people cry but it's always problematic to find meaning and to understand what this moment in time meant for people and how they reacted and how they didn't have a choice and now we have a choice."
The notion of choice runs throughout 4 Months and not strictly in terms of the abortion debate. In a broader sense, the film explores questions of choice, or more accurately the lack of choice, within an oppressive regime. Without freedom of choice women subjected themselves to crude illegal abortionists who could take more than just their money. Similarly, citizens without freedom from constant government restrictions would find their rights vulnerable to abuse as well. So the issue in the film is not abortion but rather what it's like to live under Communist rule, especially for women. Gabita could not choose abortion legally and if she had the baby she would have had no choice about her future. Choice, Marinca says, is a word she keeps returning to when discussing the film.
"We think about ourselves and thank god we do not live any more in that era," she says, "and that we have the opportunity of choosing. And also having to take responsibility for our own choices."
But some felt that remaining silent was their only choice during those bleak Communist years. Much of the film plays out in silence as characters seem unable to verbalize their feelings or their objections.
"Don't forget we were living under this appalling regime," says Marinca, "and people weren't allowed to talk and we were all accomplices to the silence, we are guilty of what happened for so many of the women in Romania. We all as a society because nobody spoke about it."
But now the silence has been broken.
"It's a very important process now understanding our past," says Marinca, "understanding who we are now, and vocalize what we haven't been able to speak about for so much time. And that's what we are, we are the voice of Romania, artists are the voice of their people I think."
And that voice is infused with unexpected humor. "If you would understand Romanian, it would be even stronger," says Marinca, "When people see this movie in Romanian and they understand all the subtleties of the language, there are many, many moments when they smile or when they laugh, of course there's a nervous reaction as well because the tension is so strong. We've lost a bit in translation. There is more irony and humor than you can perceive in the English translation. And I love this quality. I think Chekhov is our genius in doing that - we have to hunt the irony in the most grim moments, and vice versa. In the most comical stories you have to pick those very serious moments."
Mungiu reveals irony in his subtitle for the film, calling it one of his "Tales from the Golden Age." The irony of this description is reflected in the austere visual style Mungiu employs for his film. Marinca says it was no accident that they shot in the middle of winter "because of the colors. It's because of the austere atmosphere of those times it's very important to observe the surroundings, everything is gray, there's no color in the characters or their surroundings, everything is very plain but their internal feelings are the same, are even darker."
Actress Anamaria Marinca spoke with me from Bucharest about her film. (IFC Films)
When I spoke with the London-based Marinca, she was back in Bucharest waiting to receive an award for Woman of the Year from a Romanian magazine. She sounded a bit overwhelmed by the honor but her exquisite performance in 4 Months alone merits such kudos. Otilia is our anchor in the film. Her steady strength and Marinca's highly nuanced performance rivet us to the screen. While embarrassed by praise for her work, Marinca was eager to extol the virtues of her character: "I think she is just one of those anonymous heroes. We see them everyday on the street but we don't recognize them and that's a pity. She's courageous and she cares so much for the one next to her more than for herself. That's a very precious gift not all of us have it."
But caring for Gabita and dealing with the abortion tests even Otilia's limits. The film ends with the two women sitting at a restaurant where a wedding banquet provides an incongruous celebration in the background. A waiter offers them a plate of meats from the wedding menu, but the meats, including "breaded brains," seems "tragically comic" at this moment in time. So he asks them what they would prefer instead. Otilia asks for a moment to think about it. The shot holds on the two women who sit in silence. Then Otilia turns to the audience. That's Mungiu's delicate way of asking the viewer to take a moment to think about what has happened to these women and to his country.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (unrated and in Romanian with subtitles) is a fine subtle work that's well worth seeking out.
As a side note, I think it's an embarrassment that both 4 Months and another femme-centered film, Persepolis , were both snubbed by this year's Foreign Film Oscar category. Both display more delicate craft, intimacy and fresh perspective than the majority of the films nominated.
Companion viewing: 12:08 East of Bucharest, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Lake of Fire