Friday, January 04, 2008

4 Months Opening in 21 Days

It is hard to imagine most contemporary political films coming out of Hollywood changing any hearts and minds, or even spurring serious debate on their pet issues. When filmmakers clumsily stack the deck, eschewing nuance, the cinema suffers. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (trailer here), the Romanian winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s Palme D’Or, is often a very difficult film to watch, but it is far from simplistic propaganda.

Much is prohibited in Ceausescu’s Romania, including abortions as of 1966. However, there was a thriving black market in Romania, ranging from the ubiquitous purveyors of western cigarettes, to back alley abortionists. Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months chronicles the efforts of Otilia, a level headed university student, as she helps Găbiţa, her pregnant roommate seeking an illegal abortion. To say things get ugly would be a fair statement.

Needless to say 1987 Romania was not a pleasant environment. As presented by Mungiu, cinematographer Oleg Mutu, and production designer Mihaela Poenaru, it is a grim, grey naturalistic world, where the very buildings themselves are oppressive. However, Ceausescu’s name is never mentioned, and very little of the police state apparatus is actually seen, aside from a few coppers here and there. We do have the potential punishments for abortion explained in some detail by the man they intend to hire for the job, a dangerous underworld figure simply known as “Mr. Bebe,” portrayed with cold-blooded intensity by Vlad Ivanov.

This could be considered a spoiler paragraph, but the squeamish might want to be warned that there are some graphic scenes during the actually act, and the events leading up to it are equally difficult to watch. 4 Months is both disturbing and honest because it insists on showing the reality of the abortion. That even extends to showing a fetus, which does indeed look like a small baby.

It is hard to watch 4 Months and not conclude that what happens in that seedy hotel room is a crime, or multiple crimes. You can certainly use the film to argue that is a function of abortion’s criminal status in Communist Romania. However, the film chooses to show things which would not lend support to the practice in general.

4 Months is a particularly interesting film because Mungiu never takes the easy way out. Otilia, powerfully played by Anamaria Marinca, is a complex character, but quite sympathetic. Laura Vasiliu’s Găbiţa however, shows a marked propensity for making bad decisions that ultimately tries the patience of Otilia and the audience.

This film is very difficult to get a handle on. While 4 Months is clearly “pro-choice” in American terms, it is not likely to convert its audiences into armies of Margaret Sangers. Its frequent shaky camera work and dim lighting are annoying, yet they combine to effectively create an atmosphere of increasing trepidation. For all its intensity, the film ends a bit abruptly, with at least one loose end (or red herring) still dangling. Marinca and Ivanov give two tour-de-force performances, but the film is still an uncomfortable viewing experience.

As an “issue” movie though, 4 Months is undeniably effective. I’m glad I have never given starred ratings to films in reviews, because I honestly have no idea what to give 4 Months, but I certainly respect it as. It opens January 25th in New York at the IFC Film Center.