Within the hardcore film lover community, the cinema of Romania has recently come to great prominence. With films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 to Bucharest there is a real “new wave” feeling coming from the country. This has been something of a running self deprecating joke among film buffs who would find themselves saying things like “why would I want to see Rambo, when I could be seeing that Romanian abortion movie?” The “Romanian Abortion movie is of course 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, if not the best, certainly the most recognized Romanian film thus far.
Set in 1980s communist Romania, the film revolves around a College aged girl Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca), whose dorm roommate, Gabriela Dragut (Laura Vasiliu), has recently become victim to an unwanted pregnancy and wants an abortion. The procedure is illegal in this era of Romanian history and in order to terminate the pregnancy they must illicit the service of a black market abortionist named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov).
The message of the movie never comes out and reveals itself, but it is obvious nonetheless: that when abortion is illegal it will still occur regularly but with greater danger, with even less dignity for the child, all while unnecessarily criminalizing young girls. This is the same basic message that was on display in the great 2004 Mike Leigh film Vera Drake which focused on the well meaning woman who provided abortions through a method she doesn’t know is extremely dangerous.
The Cristian Mungiu’s visual style is a big part of what makes the film special. The film’s style recalls Cristi Puiu’s work in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu but does it better. Most large portions of the film are done handheld or with a stedi-cam, but one is never supposed to associate it with documentary filmmaking. The cinematography is clean and free of film grain, but seems washed out as if all the color has been removed from this world. Mungiu often features long uninterrupted shots, but they are not long shots that call attention to themselves like the Dunkirk sequence of Atonement, or even Alfonso Curon’s work in Children of Men. The real purpose of these long shots seems more related to avoidance of breaking continuity, to avoid the artifice of such a technique. As such, one subconsciously begins to feel like a third friend in the room with these two girls following them during their ordeal.
Anamaria Marinca is the backbone of the film, and has to subtly convey her distress. Note a particular scene where she is forced to attend a party as her friend is in a dire position. Both her character and the audience are focused on the how Gabriela is doing, but are forced to deal with this intolerable family get together. Marinca in this scene needs to convey deep thought while trying to keep a straight face at this party. Laura Vasiliu also has the challenge of portraying a character that is desperate and often behaves irrationally. There is a real panic to her behavior and a deep vulnerability that needs to be conveyed.
Special consideration should be given to Vlad Ivanov who must play the black market abortionist. This abortionist is nothing like the empathetic Vera Drake, he’s simply in it for the money. He’s like a drug dealer with medical skills, he does not care about these women, in fact he clearly looks down on both of them and has no hesitation to verbally abuse them both. He is not an antagonist; in fact he’s technically the only ally these girls have. Mr. Bebe is clearly a bad person, but he only has power because society has made his kind necessary. Ivanov’s performance is really strong, and the movie really becomes great when he arrive in the film.
In the May of 2007 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days won the Palm D’or at the Cannes Film Festival, as is usual with winners at Cannes, we’re only now seeing it nearly a year later. This wait is largely because of studios trying to wait for the Academy to honor their films with a Best Foreign Language film Oscar, an honor which more often than not never comes. This of course bites the academy in the ass when the films get released and build a following only after they are no longer eligible. This of course wasn’t even nominated because the geriatric nominating committee wasn’t cutting edge enough to understand a Romanian Abortion movie. What Foreign film distributors need to understand is that the foreign category, like any category, is largely dependent on buzz, and you’re not going to get much of it if your film hasn’t graced American shores. Reforming the category should be simple: ditch the nominating committee and require American distribution for eligibility the same way they do for other categories.
Before I saw this film I was really skeptical about this so called “Romanian New Wave,” but now I see the potential. I can definitely see why this would break away from the pack and get the recognition it has. The film tackles a controversial topic with serious restraint and maturity. The film has absolutely no mainstream appeal, but it is a great piece of cinema that should be seen by everyone who has an interest in the art house hardcore.
**** out of Four