Wednesday, March 12, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

As a condemnation of the meanness of everyday life in Romania under the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceausescu, Cristian Mungui’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an extraordinary document. The film is certainly political—Gabriela, a timid college student in Bucharest, is pregnant and elects to have an abortion, even though the procedure is illegal and punishable by years in prison—but it is, even more, intensely personal, and it is as a personal record that the film will register with most viewers. The movie isn’t about Gabriela’s decision to have an abortion, and it isn’t even about the procedure itself; rather, it is about her roommate and friend, Otilia, who attends to Gabriela’s basic needs and absorbs, herself, the emotional blow of the process. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days doesn't describe the corruption of political life, but the elemental nature of our personal lives. Heated in the crucible of crisis, friendship is reduced to something hard, inarticulate, and ultimately inscrutable.

We first see Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu), known as Gabita, and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) in their college dormitory, where they are packing their bags as if for a weekend away. Gabita has the face and the initiative of a porcelain doll; she relies on Otilia to take care of even the simplest elements of their excursion. Otilia manages the cash that they plan on taking, discourages Gabita from bringing school notes for studying, makes last-second purchases from the dorm’s black markets, and feeds powdered milk to sibling kittens found in the boiler room. If Gabita is the ideal victim of the Communist state’s vitiating enterprise, Otilia is its nemesis. She has maintained the autonomy and humanity that have been indoctrinated right out of Gabita—though, to be fair, it’s easy to imagine surrendering one’s identity in a world as dyspeptic as that described by Oleg Mutu’s cinematography: all Spartan rooms and long dark corridors and flickering neon lights. When Otilia leaves the dorm to finalize the arrangements for their weekend, Gabita is back on the edge of her bed, wondering still if she should take her notes.

Gabita’s indifference to her life and plight extends even to the moment of the abortion, which takes place in a tawdry hotel room and is performed by the ironically named Mr. Bebe. Bebe explains that he needs to know how long she’s been pregnant, but Gabita is unable to give him a precise answer. She’s not just listless—she’s lifeless. Still, through her obfuscatory ignorance and naïveté, some cunning shines: her denial is so elliptical that we wonder if she really subscribes to her own deceptions, or if her only hope for survival is to play dead.

Bebe is one of the great characters of this year’s films: we sense that beneath his measured exterior is an animal aggression, but we don’t anticipate its sudden, violent release or its quiet withdrawal. (He calls to mind Daniel Plainview rather than Vera Drake.) Vlad Ivanov’s performance, like Vasiliu’s, is an exercise in ambiguity. Is Bebe Evil dressed in a cable sweater? Or is he, possibly, a corrupted, dissipated product of the totalitarian machine? If his etiolated disposition suggests the latter, his mercenary brutality confirms the former. There’s no excusing or rationalizing the payment he demands from Gabriela and Otilia, but there’s also no denying the care—it lacks the erotic charge of fetish—with which he prepares for and performs the abortion.

The rest of the movie charts Otilia’s exploration of unfamiliar emotional, and urban, terrain. Otilia leaves Gabita at the hotel room—she had told her boyfriend that she would attend his mother’s birthday party—and promises to come back as soon as she can. In a long, painful scene at the party, Otilia endures the frivolous chatter of professional doctors and housewives; the camera, trained on her face from a mid-distance, captures her impatience and anxiety as the conversation drifts from Easter eggs to the younger generation’s impertinence. The power of this scene is that, though it is about nothing, it tells us everything. Otilia is seated in the middle of all the guests, but her mind is still in the hotel room with Gabita. It’s as though her instinctive commitment to Gabita has nullified her contractual agreement with the rest of society. She has changed fundamentally; she returns to the hotel and Gabita through Bucharest’s dark streets not as the poised college student we saw earlier in the film but as something feral, or pre-lingual. Fittingly, the movie ends in silence. Otilia has discarded the fetus, and the Romanian night rages on. If Otilia is unsure of what the future holds, she knows that what Bebe told her when they first met is true: it’s too late to start over.

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