By Ray Pride
You could diagram the content, the visual grammar, the momentous performances of Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes Palme d’Or-winning “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile) like a simple, lengthy sentence, and yet what remains awe-inspiring is the sensation you’re left with when it’s over: how on earth did he do this?
How did a 39-year-old Romanian director, on his second feature (after 2002’s “Occident”), with the estimable director of photography Oleg Mutu (who also shot 2005’s brilliant, devastating “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” for Cristi Puiu), who learned process through working on shabby Western projects (1998’s “Teen Knight,” anyone?) in his beleaguered nation, produce something of such shattering narrative and moral clarity?
For one thing, he’s good. He’s gifted. Here’s how good he is—“4 Months” was positioned by Romania as its entry for the best foreign language picture Academy Award; it didn’t even make the shortlist. From the opening shots (and perhaps including a later one that shows the outcome of the characters’ actions), Mungiu is working in a vocabulary of extended takes and quietly formal framing that perhaps works against the expectations of the ostensibly elderly members of the Academy who must contribute the time to watch large batches of the seventy-plus entrants. “4 Months” isn’t about sweet-faced moppets, a historical favorite of Academy voters. From Brazil this year, “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation” sounds like one of those ringers. Still, you’d hope that a group that recognized the strengths of “The Lives Of Others” this past year would also be able to see what’s going on in this marvel of a movie.
There could also be the small matter of the subject. It’d be a great grace if I could just tell you that this movie is fine and has many turns of human behavior, measured performance and narrative lucidity, without telling you what it’s about. It’s a good long patch before you’re given the key to what the characters are conspiring about, and it would as well be a spy thriller as what we actually are seeing. It’s 1987. Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime is not long for this world. It’s months before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Two college roommates, Otilia and Gabita (Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, both breathtakingly fine) make preparations for what could be a short vacation. But Gabita has a different goal: an illegal abortion. With a limited time frame, coursing across a complicated and distressing single day, “4 Months” makes much of little. But where Mungiu excels is not in modesty, but in the breadth of the spaces his characters are trapped in, who would be criminal in the eyes of the regime even if they were not seeking something illegal. There would be something to be guilty of. Every act of agency is a genie spiriting against the regime.
The design and framing strategies Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck used in “The Lives Of Others” were more reminiscent of theatrical means (in the best possible way, both in theme and style). Working in widescreen, Mungiu and Mutu suggest all manner of psychological captivity, and without struggling unduly to replicate a time when they would have been teenagers, manage to capture the rapt terror of having so many choices in life dictated by an oppressive, intrusive government. The plot concerns abortion, but the film is about fear. (And the love of Kent cigarettes.) Mungiu’s undergraduate studies included U.S. short-story writers, and that sort of plaintive grace, of behavior that is piercing described in offhand fashion, permeates almost every frame of “4 Months.” A barren street, a decrepit apartment, a woman’s face, an abortionist’s patter: Mungiu is a describer, but he doesn’t need words. Blank walls, blank faces: they suffice. They are worlds.
“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” opens Friday at the Music Box.