Tuesday, 8 January 2008

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (dir. Cristian Mungiu)

By 'eck it's grim up North. Or out East, in this instance. Mungiu's tale is one of austere miserabilsm, which clearly caught the consciences of the pampered Cannes jury, who awarded it the Palme D'Or.

This fact is stressed in the trailer, when a thespian voice declaims the film's Cannes victory. Mungiu is part of the new Romanian cinema boom. His film, which describes the circumstances of an abortion, is cleverly set in a world which almost seems like it might be contemporary, but is actually set in the last days of the Ceausescu tyranny. It's a world where everything is a hassle, and everyone's on the make. Trying to do something as simple as book a hotel room becomes a trial, with the hotel staff acting like they have a mandate from the Politburo to piss everyone off.

Mungiu establishes this world with a sharp eyed camera, which follows Otilia (played with a survivor's verve by Anamaria Marinca) as she goes about trying to help her friend Gaby, who is seeking the abortion. Otilia evades the bus conductors and deals with the hotel staff. She collects the creepy abortionist, Bebe, and does what needs to be done to ensure that the abortion goes ahead.

Bebe is a borderline psychopath, and Vlad Ivanov plays him with an understated menace. It's after he leaves that the film seems to lose direction, unsure whether it's in the genre of psychological horror, as the trailer suggests, or gritty social realism. It plumps more for the latter, with the discarded foetus lying on a bathroom floor acting as a visceral money shot. But even this image looks like it could belong to another genre. Mungiu has seeded various plot twists which are all red herrings - the knife; the missing ID papers etc. The audience's greatest fear is what will happen when Bebe returns, but Mungiu shies away from this as he explores Odilia's dark night of the soul on the streets of a relentlessly menacing but ultimately harmless Bucharest.

Mungiu's skill as a filmmaker is not in doubt. His ability to capture the nuances of social interaction is surgical, notably in the scenes between Odilia and her out-of-his-depth boyfriend. He lets the camera roll to generate a high level of tension in the Bebe scenes, and has no fear of inflicting merciless realism on his audience in the abortion scene. However, the red herrings, rather than adding to the story, in the end get in the way. Odilia's last line to the friend who's dragged her through a night of hell feels like a soft soap pay off. We've been taken to some bleak places, but nothing like as bleak as we'd feared.

Perhaps this is what the Cannes jury appreciated - Mungiu's ultimate good taste. In contrast to a film like Cargo 200, we come away from 4 Months... grateful that our society is supposedly more tender than this bleak vision of Bucharest, but hardly alienated by what we've seen. Mungiu's vision is harsh but never deranged. It represents a clinical, observational eye which mirrors the one we like to think we possess, when we stir ourselves enough to rise from the primordial soup of our materialist lives. The ultimate appeal of the film is the way it triggers our own better natures to engage with the screen, which leaves the cinema goer feeling enlightened by the misery, rather than disturbed by it. As such 4 Months... thrives on the strengths and ultimately succumbs to the weaknesses of social realism, a 'realism' all the more palatable for being set in a long-lost world of monstrous tyranny.

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