Tuesday, July 29, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007)

Occasionally, a film seeps like quicksand into your consciousness, resides there for a while, troubles you and never, ever, quite completely becomes absent in the rotating collage of the mind. Images haunt. Certain scenes play out repetitively. Performances deepen. A particular shot lingers. A line of dialogue remains. The film taunts you because it seems to be a biological entity unto itself. Somewhere between the lensing and the film processing, the movie becomes alive. And some movies are merciless.

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's miraculous but nearly unbearable film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and Days is a work of nightmarish potency, its narrative playing out like a ravenous beast, so supremely confident, in the best and most nakedly way possible. It just does not relent. Mungiu's film has been said to represent the pinnacle of the "Romanian New Wave," represented by the likes of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Way I Spent the End of the World and 12:08 East of Bucharest before it. (These are all amazing films that vary from the raw melancholy of Mr. Lazarescu to the defiantly simple and infectious humor of 12:08.)

In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu creates a dire prism that is minimalistic, dismaying and fiercely immediate. Shot in pseudo-documentary fashion, it pulls the viewer in with dynamic alacrity, as we find ourselves in Bucharest in the 1980s. Nicolae Ceausescu rules Romania. In a reaction to his country's declining birthrate, Ceausescu has banned abortion: it is punishable by up to ten years in jail.

Mungiu's film keeps the viewer at a certain emotional distance through a cinema verite stylistic choice. This may be necessary in any event. A sequence late in the film follows this procedure, but because of the heightened drama's climax occurring at this pivotal point (let us just note that a character is carrying something), the impact is similar to that of a terrifically well-executed horror film. Most of the film is concerned with the banality of evil stupidity, however, and so Mungiu's unadorned technique captures that common banality with visual dexterity and cinematic simplicity.

A college student by the name of Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) decides to run the risk since she's carrying her child for the duration the film's title bravely, baldly announces. At first, the film almost feels like it may not be as interesting as it should be, as it briefly seems to encourage us to merely pity Gabita and her plight. However, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days quickly becomes more complex. Gabita is a wonderment. She's something of a master at passive-aggressive manipulation. Behind ostensible doe-eyed, naive innocence, she is in truth a despicable liar whose willingness to put others at risk to save herself casts her in an entirely different light than one may have expected. Gabita has enlisted her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), to help her in terminating her pregnancy.

Mungiu's film finds its heart in Otilia, whose efforts to help her roommate it tirelessly follows. It is she who performs practically every incriminating task, including handing over her identity papers to a hotel establishment's desk clerk while being taped by an ominous security camera, as a direct result of Gabita's failure to reserve a hotel room. Step by methodical step, Otilia has irretrievably, completely implicated herself.

The abortionist who shows up is a ruthless scavenger. Upon discovering the truth about Gabita's pregnancy--piercing her flimsy lies about it with great ease--he threatens to simply walk away from the entire situation. Angered by Gabita's dishonesty, and scared by what may happen to him, he furiously barks at the two women, pointing out that terminating a pregnancy beyond five months means he could very well be prosecuted for murder, and he's in the dark with regards to the actual number of months, weeks and days, but it's sufficiently clear that Gabita's low-ball estimates are absurd. When the two women plead with him, he initially remains firm in his self-preservation. Gradually, however, he decides, "Everything has its price." Otilia's honor is that price.

Finally, Otilia hesitantly leaves Gabita in the hotel room, casually waiting for the passing of her baby. Otilia's boyfriend has steadfastly requested she make some sort of appearance at his mother's birthday party. The eventual scene is scathing in its limpidness. Mungiu shoots the event in a stately manner, purposefully forcing Otilia in the middle of a boisterous, crowded frame, her somewhat oblivious boyfriend joining with his family in celebrating the occasion. The film takes place in the stark, bitter cold of winter yet several women begin speaking of the festive time of coloring Easter eggs. The scene is lacerating, with Otilia looking on straight ahead. The entire incongruous meshing of home, religion and fertility has spiritually pulverized her. Moments later, alone with her boyfriend in his room, she verbally offers the truth about what has troubled her. Slowly the conversation becomes about self. Otilia asks him what he would do if she ever became pregnant. Briefly dumbfounded, he vainly attempts to rescue himself. He would take care of her, he unconvincingly mouths. After being pressed by his girlfriend, he relents, saying with total meekness and barely a hint of enthusiasm that he would marry her. Her look is withering. The moment seems to exist in suspended animation. He averts his gaze. She leaves.

Mungiu's blunt, acutely vivid film captures the grimness of communist Romania. It's a tale wrapped up in the blanket of hopelessness, and the quiddity of regret-fueled angst. Psychologically, it is eviscerating. Presented with clinically disinterested tonal ambiance, the film's enveloping despair is singularly communicable. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is probably not a film for the easily upset. There are no plot-driven shortcuts: the film is one terribly menacing straight line. It's visually and atmospherically grounded, almost to the point of being blindingly dour. The ineluctable nature of it all is downright appalling, the injustice of the story possibly maddening. Yet it is never a depressing creation. It is too serenely confident, perhaps even arrogant, to be dismissed as such. It's much like a novel you read that wants to take you to a certain inescapably awful place, in which you encounter awful people, in this case ruled by an awful regime, and whose chiefest purpose is to illuminate the awfulness of misery itself, an abstract notion made concretely real. There is no pleasurable consolation. Only love. Yes: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is finally so courageous it has love for its blighted, anagogically exhausted characters.

17 comments:

Alison Flynn said...

Wow, that first paragraph is amazing, Alexander, and sums up perfectly why some films just stick with me.

This is one of my top 5 2008 films (even though it's technically 2007 I didn't see it until 2008).

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Alison. I knew you thought quite highly of this film so I was hoping for your reading and input. :)

Well, I'm going with Rotten Tomatoes and other things on this, as they all have it down as a 2008 film, so...

To be honest, upon initially viewing it, I didn't find it as powerful as some had claimed, despite the immediacy, which is undeniable. Yet it stirs restlessly once you've taken some time to properly digest it.

K. Bowen said...

This happens to be sitting next to my television awaiting its turn in the DVD player.

Sam Juliano said...

In consideration of the film's themes, oppressive settings and moral decay, you again write a piece of film criticism that really stands at the forefront of what has been written about this Romanian masterpiece. What I appreciate most about all your work is your meticulous structure and auspicious use of vocabulary.
Ex. --"In 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, Mungiu creates a dire prism that is minimalistic, dismaying and fiercely immediate." That is quite a sentence and it brings this work under sharp focus, in fact under a magnifying glass. But there's so much more in the review that is worthy of singling out.
4 MONTHS is one of the great films of recent years, but I followed the lead of some other critics, and it made my Top 5 of 2007, so I myself won't be putting it on this year's list, although I fully understand you having it the other way.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you very much, Sam. It means a lot to have someone of your considerable intellect and love for film to find my reviews worthwhile at CCC. The same goes for everyone else, of course.

KB, don't be surprised if you're almost scratching your head after you see it, only to have it grow like a fungus in your head. That's what happened to me.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks so much for your too kind words. As I've said in the past: you are a gentleman and a scholar.

Alexander Coleman said...

And Sam, you may be technically right, about it being an '07 release, and I could see myself buckling and officially placing it as such. Oh well. Thanks again for the kind words.

Alexander Coleman said...

Ah, you snuck in there. :)

Thank you, Sam.

Sam Juliano said...

You know what Alexander? If you consider the film for 2008, there may be no drama in composing your final list. FOUR MONTHS would probably be the #1 film, placing ahead of even anything yet to release. It's THAT great as you yourself have so eloquently posed. So I will leave it be, especially since it's Romanian release date may have been even a year earlier than that---2006--

Alexander Coleman said...

That's a good point, Sam. I'm buckling, though. :)

Daniel G. said...

It's reviews like this that make us all sad that you weren't publicly writing earlier, Alexander. I'm impressed that even though you admit to not being immediately stunned, you still pull out the most arresting components.

I'm also putting in 2007. Who knows why? Between this and The Band's Visit, the year end lists are really going to be screwed up badly.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks very much, Daniel. I think it helped to write this so long after first seeing this way back in winter. I recently took another look and it grabbed me much more. It's a film that kind of sneaks up on you in a way that some of the more haunting films finally do.

Craig Kennedy said...

I'm late to the party here, but as everyone else has mentioned another finely written review Alexander.

I've been hesitant to revisit this one as much as I liked it. It was terrific, but so unpleasant in a way. I don't know if I've seen a more tension filled, suspenseful film in ages.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks, Craig.

I agree, this isn't the most welcoming of films when it comes to being revisited.

Ultimately, though, what I've told people personally with regards to this film and many others when asked, "Is it depressing?" is that filmmaking of this caliber is never depressing. It's ultimately a beautiful film, though it nevertheless remains an indescribably sickeningly captivating one. As you note, Craig, it's astonishingly tense.

Craig Kennedy said...

yes, not depressing at all. Invigorating, but also a kick in the balls.

Alexander Coleman said...

Indeed, that's a good description right there.

Rowland said...

Thanks for this post, pretty effective piece of writing.
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