This was originally published in Film International Issue #32, March/April 2008
Romania’s Communist era may have come to an abrupt end in the popular uprising of 1989 that saw Ceaucescu deposed and executed, but it is only recently that Romanian cinema has undergone its own revolution, transforming from a cottage industry little known beyond its own borders to an international powerhouse recognised and admired by critics, if not yet by the box office.
Cristi Puiu’s humanist allegory The Death of Mr Lazarescu (Moartea Domnului Lazarescu, 2005) set the ball rolling, showing out of competition at Cannes (criminally, in the judgement of some), but still winning itself the Prix Un Certain Regard; and in the following year Corneliu Porumboiu’s revisionist satire 12:08 East of Bucharest (A fost sau n-a fost?, 2006), though determinedly lo-fi, would still garner Cannes’ Golden Camera. It would fall, however, to Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks & 2 days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile, 2007) to become the nation’s first film to win the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes (as well as the FIPRESCI Prize, and a slew of awards from other festivals). Romania, it seems, has well and truly arrived.
Mungiu’s film chronicles one long day in the life of two female roommates in 1987, at the fag end of Communism. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) are like any students, exchanging goods and gossip with the others in their dorm building, worrying about their exams, and smoking Kent cigarettes whenever they can get their hands on them – but they are also plotting something which will take them out of their normal routine for the next few days. Bags have been packed, a hotel room has been booked, money has been put together, and a clandestine rendez-vous has been arranged with a certain Mr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov).
For as the title somewhat cryptically suggests, Gabita is in an advanced state of pregnancy, and she is hoping, with the help of her more level-headed friend, to procure an abortion – an operation strictly forbidden in Romania since 1966. Mr Bebe has both the tools and the know-how to carry out the job, but he is no Vera Drake, and his services, though affordable, come at a heavy price. ‘Trust’, Mr Bebe asserts, ‘is vital’ – but in the end there is little of that left, and the experience will take its toll on Otilia’s relationship with boyfriend Adi (Alex Potocean) as well as her friendship with Gabita.
In the opening scene, Otilia will remark on the unusual nature of a photograph forming the backdrop of Gabita’s fishtank. Later Gabita will comment on the strangeness of a painted image hanging behind the hotel bed. 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days is indeed a film whose background particulars are every bit as important as the events taking place centre stage – but do not expect here anything like the ‘Ostalgie’ that has characterised much of Germany’s post-reunification television and cinema – typified by Leander Haußmann’s Sun Alley (Sonnenallee, 1999) and Wolfgang Becker’s Good Bye Lenin! (2003), and tending to reduce the former GDR to a benignly bumbling regime most notable for its hilariously tasteless fashions and matchless pickles.
Such blinkered sentimentality is entirely absent from Mungiu’s film, whose background period references – the sullen officiousness of the hotel staff, the constant shortage of everyday goods, the lack of proper street lighting, the harsh realities of enforced country postings or military service (the latter significantly said to last nine months, like a pregnancy), the constant surveillance and ever-present threat of being reported to the authorities – hardly inspire rosy-eyed nostalgia for the past. On the contrary, 4 months, 3 weeks & 2 days depicts the Communist state as a dark, drab version of hell, where individual freedom – and in particular women’s freedom – is desperately constrained.
Gabita and Otilia may be conspiring to break the law, but in the Kafkaesque world of pre-revolutionary Romania, even their most banal activities (riding the tram, trying to secure a room, buying soap or cigarettes) take on a decidedly cloak-and-dagger quality. Everyone, it seems, must abuse the system to survive – and there are abuses committed by others far worse than anything that the girls attempt. The horrific indignities to which both succumb are merely symptomatic of things rotten in the state of Ceaucescu.
With its handheld long takes, its naturalistic performances, and its lack of musical score, 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days is a model of constructed realism. Only at the very end, as the two principal characters agree never again to talk about what has happened, are both reality and realism swept under the carpet, as Otilia is shown, an instant before Mungiu cuts to black, turning to stare uncomfortably right into the camera. Then, over the closing credits, come the incongruously upbeat tones of a cheesey romantic duet. Like the increasingly inflated exam results that Adi’s father (Adi Carauleanu) and his guests discuss over dinner, this is an ending that offers the merest illusion of all being well, entirely out of sync with the underlying truth of affairs.
4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days is just one part of a larger project called ‘Tales from the Golden Age’, which will examine the history of Communism in Romania obliquely and subjectively through the country’s urban legends – while the film that started the revolution,The Death of Mr Lazarescu is only the first in a projected six-feature series of “Stories from the suburbs of Bucharest” that will look at different aspects of love. Which is to say that Romania is currently pregnant with both great filmmaking talent and grand ambition, promising a bountiful brood of quality cinema for years to come – or as Mr Bebe says (albeit in a rather different context), ‘Once we start, there’s no turning back.’
Reviewed by Anton Bitel