Thursday, January 6, 2011

Short Review: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (Christian Mungiu, 2007)

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a brilliant artistic achievement that very directly covers some unsettling subject matter with stark, documentary-like visuals and paints an unflinchingly realistic image of Communist Romania in its "Golden" years. Winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, writer/director Christian Mungiu's masterpiece is a feat of naturalist cinema; an engrossing narrative that follows and observes it's characters with precision.

Set in Bucharest in 1987 (the final years of the Ceausescu regime), the story follows two friends and roommates, Gabriela Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca), who board together while they complete their studies. The film opens inside their boardroom as they nervously discuss small matters, but note some items they will need for the day. The shy, meek Gabriela appears to be withdrawn and claims to be feeling unwell, while the headstrong Otilia is proactive and assumes control, visiting students in adjoining rooms and purchasing necessary items. What it is not revealed at this point is that Gabriela is pregnant, and that the women have arranged to meet Mr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), a surgeon who has completed illegal abortions in the past. At this point Communist Romania had a Natalist policy against abortion, and the procedure was punishable by significant jail time.

Otilia travels by bus to meet her boyfriend, from whom she borrows some money. After finding no reservation under Gabriela's name at the desired hotel, Otilia finally manages to book a different hotel room for her and Gabriela so that the procedure could take place and then meets Mr Bebe, directing him to the hotel, where Gabriela is now waiting. The film takes quite a disturbing turn once they all arrive at the hotel, as Bebe requests not money from the women for the procedure, but sexual favors. He is also enraged at the discovered stage of Gabriela's pregnancy. She had told him originally that she was in the second month, but was in fact beyond the fourth, which means that the abortion will be constituted as murder, if they are discovered. After initially arguing against the man's abhorrent request, the women succumb to his wishes, and he administers the probe and liquid into Gabriela which will complete the procedure.

For Otilia it is a truly powerful tale of how far one is willing to go to help a friend, to risk ones life and to have their body at liberty to such violent abuse. Gabriela's lies to Bebe and withholding of the truth to Otilia really could have led to a disastrous outcome. Throughout the film, the emotional strain placed upon Otilia becomes more apparent, none more so than when she attends the birthday dinner of her boyfriend's mother only minutes after leaving Gabriela alone in the hotel room. She struggles to communicate with her boyfriend and is repeatedly taunted by the family friends about her heritage when she sits down to dinner. When she finally has the removed fetus, she wanders through the creepy, decrepit back streets of the unnamed Romanian town in search of a place to dump it. She is instructed to not bury it, but to find the garbage shoot of a multi-story apartment block and to dispose of it through there.

The performances are all truly outstanding, especially from Anamaria Marinca. The static hand-held camera often remains on the cast for the entire duration of the shot, so 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is essentially comprised of a number of very long takes. These last minutes, and uncomfortably observe the lengthy exchanges of dialogue and activity from one corner of the room. In some instances the characters walk out of the frame and then return, but the camera always remains stationary. In other sequences there are minutes of silence as the characters absorb and process what has happened. When Otilia is walking through the streets the camera is no longer static, but patiently follows her. The jolting hand-held works well here because of the unsettling sense of danger present within the city under the political regime. With pitch-perfect natural dialogue throughout, one is easily reminded of Italian Neorealism, but this is not an Italian film, but a film funded from Romania and one of the defining films of New Romanian Cinema. It really is eye-opening to be able to witness a film that so honestly portrays such a time of hardship. From a Western perspective, the lengths that these women have to go to is just unfathomable. The story is grim and the ramifications truly shocking, but this is also a brilliantly constructed work of art with terrific performances. This really deserves to be seen by more people.

My Rating: 5 Stars

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