' Cinema Romantico: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Prior to delving into this stark Romanian film that has received four stars from just about every film critic on every continent (I would give it three and a half) I want to advise that anyone unfamiliar with details regarding the plot and that possesses any desire to see it without having any of these plot details beforehand should stop short of reading this review. I'm not going to give away the ending, or anything that substantial, but perhaps this movie's most remarkable quality is that it does not set the table for you all nice and proper at the start. It doesn't spell out for you exactly what is taking place in the first five minutes and instead you have to watch and absorb and slowly, but surely, you will come to get a grasp on the proceedings. It's pretty phenomenal to witness these opening passages and so I'm just offering a fair warning if you wish to watch "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" stone cold.

Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, spectacularly haunting) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are roommates at a university. As the movie starts, Otilia roams the halls of their dorm. She buys some cigarettes. Then she goes to a hotel where Gabita was to have made a reservation but didn't. Why didn't she? Hmmm....Otilia instead finds another hotel and makes a reservation. She meets a mysterious man named Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) who seems none too happy it is Otilia who has come to meet him and not Gabita. Otilia and Bebe meet Gabita in the reserved hotel room. Finally, we are clued into the fact Bebe has come to perform an abortion on Gabita. And we will come to discover to what lengths Otilia will go to help her friend.

Gabita does not seem all there. Clueless is a word that leaps to mind. She seems unsure of exactly how far along she is in the pregnancy. She was supposed to have met Bebe but sent Otilia instead. She did not make the reservation at the hotel Bebe requested and now Bebe's ID is with the hotel desk clerk. Gabita says she was worried that if she told Bebe the truth he would not help her. Now she's telling him the truth, he's upset about it, but he'll still go through with the procedure - once he's done his best to make it clear to both women just how much potential danger they face.

Quite often this movie feels like an extremely immediate documentary. There is no music. The camera is often very still and if it does move it is not with a smooth glide or pan. There are hardly any cutaways. The camera sets up a shot - usually with two people very close together in the frame - and stays there, whether it's the two people in the frame talking or those two conversing with someone outside the frame. The conversations occur in real time. They begin with the beginning and end with the ending and if you think that sounds simple, well, it is, but it's also a rare sight seen anymore in movies.

Last week on his blog Jim Emerson posted a link to and discussed an article called "Are Movies Going to Pieces?" written back in the 60's by the late, legendary film critic Pauline Kael. Amongst other issues, she discussed how at that point time films were starting to move away from more traditional narratives and becoming more like exercises in filmmaking. She lamented jump cuts, skipping around and away from the story, actions and motivations appearing out of thin air. Well, I think Kael might just have loved "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" if only because there is no jumping around - not ahead, not back. No quick cuts, as stated. A scene is shown to us and we stay with that scene until the characters themselves have finished with it. There is a lengthy scene where Otilia finds herself at a birthday party for her boyfriend's mother. She sits at the head of the table, stuck between her boyfriend, his father and mother, surrounded on all sides by these blathering party-goers she does not know. And the camera never - not once - leaves her face for the duration of this as she struggles to maintain her sanity.

As a proud introvert I found this scene so uncomfortable I nearly threw up.

This intimacy adds to the intensity. We are right there with these people in their dingy rooms and we - like them - have no escape. Their situations are harrowing and you will feel it.

So what is director Cristian Mungiu trying to "say" about abortion? Or about the old Romanian society? What was their "point"? Let's come at it from a different angle, what do ya' say? Let's look at the characters as presented to us. Good, evil, moral, immoral, right, wrong, whatever - Otilia, I think, has looked at Gabita and decided this is not a woman who would make a good mother.

Sunday was a cold day in Chicago. Temperatures were below zero and the wind chill was a handful of degrees below that. I left the theater, the arctic wind smacked me across the face and yet I don't recall being all that bothered by it. It felt just a tiny bit colder back inside the theater.

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