Thursday, December 03, 2009
31. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days- Cristian Mungiu (2007)
Imagine you're a young Romanian woman. You had a rough day at school, and you spent the afternoon trying to arrange transportation for your bestie to get an illegal abortion. Once you have lied your way past a suspicious desk clerk at the hotel you've scrounged up money for, you have to haggle with a shady, free-lance abortionist, whore yourself out to him, then--OMG--make it across town to the family dinner you promised your boyfriend earlier. Then you have to endure their unrelatably bourgeois conversation, fend off your boyfriend's advances (not in the mood?), and make it back to the hotel in case ol' girl bled herself to death. Why wasn't there an XBox game adapted from this?
So yeah. This is the way Netflix makes money. This disc will be on top of your DVD player for a few weeks before you psych yourself up to watch it. Otilia's day in this film makes Michael Douglas' day in Falling Down seem like Christmas Eve. But once you watch 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, you'll be thankful--relieved maybe--to have experienced something so wrenching, gritty, and eventually beautiful.
The intelligentsia decides every few years which culture to follow, and--on the heels of the Iranian cinema craze of a decade ago--Romania has become the country to watch. With The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; The Way I Spent the End of the World; Police, Adjective; and, most importantly, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the filmmakers of that nation have done something no other tradition has been able to: They have made film the medium essential to analyzing (and revising) their own history. Funded by juries and grants, Romanian artists are finding new ways to reflect upon the fall of Ceausescu's Communist rule, and each stab at doing so seems more vital and energetic. While we've known for a long time that film is the most democratic form of entertainment and artistic expression, Romania is finding a way to prove it and revel in that democracy. They're putting their leu where their mouth is.
"I really meant to watch it. It was just a busy week. I had planned to finally get to it on Friday, but I got drunk and watched basketball since I wasn't in the mood to read subtitles. I switched to two discs at-a-time, thinking that would be a solution to the problem, but now I just have two discs sitting on the machine, and I'm paying twice as much..."
Since the film takes place in the late '80s, the fall of Communism is, tragically, not yet realized for Cristian Mungiu's protagonists. Instead its compromises are ever-present. Otila, played naturalistically by Anamaria Marinca, guides Gabita around the entire movie, seemingly wise and sneaky and controlling in the way she uses the black market or navigates the town. But we easily see--through the practices of the hotel, through the humiliation she faces at dinner, through bartering for something as inconsequential as American toothpaste--that she's a tool of Communism. If such a strong woman is powerless in this political system, what hope do any of us have? If this were just a treatise on the economic and spiritual results of the collapse of Communism, it wouldn't be affecting. The viewer engages with it because the characters are not accents on some grand thesis statement; they're complicated and validated by this backdrop.
Despite its political intensity, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days exemplifies the power of minimalism like few other films of recent memory. It's half-lit and soured by drab, pre-rain atmosphere. Mungiu rarely moves the camera, and the story unfolds in interminable episodes. Much like the sublime Inglorious Basterds from earlier this year, most of the suspense is mined from the paucity of actual scenes. If there are only about ten scenes in your entire movie, they're all going to count. In some of these interactions, the negotiation with the creepy doctor for instance, we want to cut away desperately. But realizing that we can't cut away, that this is real and necessarily painful, is kind of what the movie is about.
If you only see one Romanian baby-killing buddy thriller this decade, make it this one.