Judge Franck Tabouring is still captivated by this incredibly engrossing Romanian jewel.
"In this situation we'll have to trust each other."—Vlad Ivanov
I was pretty satisfied with how things turned out at the 2008 Academy Awards, but if there's one thing I deeply regret, it's the absence of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days as a nominee in the category of the best foreign language film. After all, Cristian Mungiu's stunning drama has all it takes to compete with the crème de la crème of international movies. It won the prestigious Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, it took home two European Film Awards, and it was named best foreign language film by several national film critics associations.
Facts of the Case
The story of this fascinating film is set in Romania in 1987, when the country was still under the totalitarian leadership of corrupt communist statesman Nicolae Ceausescu. We are first introduced to Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu), a pregnant college student who wants to get rid of the baby because she can't afford being a mother at her young age. Because abortions are still illegal, she asks her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to help her arrange a black market abortion, a risky move that could send her to prison for several years.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a powerful experience that entirely captivates viewers from beginning to end, boasting a horde of incredibly intense and at times shocking scenes that will leave you out of breath. The story covers a period of twenty-four hours in the lives of main characters Gabriela and Otilia, who set out to negotiate an illegal abortion without having a single clue what they're getting themselves into. At this stage I would like to point out that Mungiu's film is neither pro-life nor pro-choice. Whether having an abortion is wrong is not at all the issue here. On the contrary, the movie focuses rather on what these two young women have to go through to finalize this perilous termination.
Although the movie runs for 113 minutes, and the plot is rather slow, it's the strength of the film's few key scenes that is truly mesmerizing and amazingly suspenseful throughout. You see, Gabriela and Otilia have no clue how to arrange an illegal abortion, and simply following instructions is definitely not as easy as it looks. First, you have to book a hotel room, which requires a reasonable explanation at the reception if you're a young college student in communist Romania. Though extremely simple, the scene in which Otilia heads out to book a room for two for a couple of nights is totally gripping. Then there's the negotiation with the stranger who performs the abortion. Here, he's an awkward man named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), who refuses the girls' money and requires them to have sex with him instead. Finally, there's the unbearable wait to determine whether the procedure was a success.
Mungui's flawless direction and Oleg Mutu's brilliant cinematography add greatly to the film's success. Mungui insisted on very long takes with minimal camera movements and mostly natural lighting, which always enables viewers to full concentrate on what's happening in the scene. I know this sounds quite monotonous, but it's also an effective way to give the actors the ability to fully show off their skills. This technique is especially effective in a scene during which Otilia has dinner with her boyfriend's parents. Clearly struck by the events of the day, all she is worried about is Gabriela. But she doesn't say a thing about it. All around her, people are talking, eating. and laughing, but Otilia quietly sits at the center of the table, staring at the camera in utter desperation. Scenes like this reinforce the power of Mangiu's story, turning the film into an emotionally charged and unforgettable experience.
Main actresses Laura Vasiliu and Anamaria Marinca didn't have that much experience before they shot this film, but I would love to see them show off their great skills more often. In fact, Marinca is slowly picking up offers in bigger projects. She recently starred in Roman Polanski's Youth Without Youth and just wrapped principal photography for Julie Delpy's directorial effort The Countess. In her role as Otilia in 4 Months, Marinca delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. Because she ends up being the character doing most of the work to set up Gabriela's abortion, she clearly has a stronger onscreen presence, which she masters with stunning authenticity.
Mangiu's film was produced on a low budget, but he was still able to shoot the film with top-notch equipment, which shows in the quality of the image. The entire film has a darker flair to it because Mutu used as much natural lighting as possible, but the picture remains clear and sharp throughout. The audio transfer is a little less crucial because the film doesn't feature any music, but the dialogue is balanced well with other sound effects. Unless you speak Romanian, you'll be busy enough reading the subtitles anyway.
IFC Films did a very nice job packaging this DVD, and they even included some interesting special features. The 25-minute interview with Cristian Mungiu is undoubtedly a must-see for everybody who appreciates the film. Mungiu talks about everything from the inspiration for the film to the development of the script, the story's political background, and his direction. He also guides his viewers to select scenes, offering a detailed look at why he shot them the way he did and what challenges he encountered during the setup.
The bonus material also includes an informative interview with Oleg Mutu, who talks mainly about the lighting in the film. People interested in cinematography can definitely take home a lesson from him. Finally, the disc features a passionate 15-minute documentary about the promotion of the film in Romania. Because the number of theaters is rapidly declining in many small towns across the whole country, a group of German projectionists traveled all across Romania to offer locals the opportunity to see the film. In what is a truly enlightening piece, the crew even interviews people who haven't seen a film in public for over 20 years.
If you spend a lot of time at your local art house and haven't had the chance yet to catch 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, make sure you invest in this DVD. It's a cinematic masterpiece you rarely come across these days, boasting a shocking but authentic story, a first-class cast, and top-notch filmmaking. I know reading subtitles is not the greatest fun, but that's a sacrifice you should easily be willing to take if you're looking for a terrific movie.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
• Interview with Cristian Mungiu
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