Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Abortion lends itself well to drama, almost too well in fact. A subject that arouses strong emotions on both sides of the polemic is ripe for overwrought dramatisation. Too often the result is disappointing, more the stuff of a TV movie than cinema. Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is a more sober-minded approach to the topic, and, at the risk of making a grotesquely disproportionate analogy, it is more powerful than your average abortion film just as Primo Levi's writings on Auschwitz, composed in the cold light of his own experiences are more jarring than many a commercialised emotional Holocaust book or movie that has appeared since.
Mungiu, born in 1968, is one of that generation of Romanians known as the decretei - the children of the decree - the decree being that of Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1966, forbidding abortion and enjoining on all Romanian women to reproduce as a patriotic gesture. The dictator's words 'the fetus is the property of the entire society; anyone who avoids having children is a deserter who abandons the laws of national continuity' dwarf even the worst attempts of Western moralists to exert control over women's bodies. Ceauşescu's abortion ban was part of a drive to increase the populaton of the country by 50% by the end of the century and though it didn't quite succeed, it did produce a generation of sufficiently rebellious youngsters that, like Mungiu, were approaching adulthood in 1989 and toppled the regime that caused them to 'be too many'. Such is the theory put forward by Steven Leavitt in Freakonomics, a not-entirely-persuasive one, but one which does have a good deal of logic to it. Mungiu, in an interview with Libération last week, stated that the moral debate over abortion that exists in the West was never applicable in Romania. People arranged clandestine abortions simply out of necessity and, as he says, partly out of defiance to the regime. It is this relatively simpler context that gives his film more air to breath and greater room for dramatic manoeuvre. It also helps that Mungiu, one of the new wave of hugely impressive Romanian directors, is a masterly technician who also knows how to manage actors perfectly.
The film takes place in a provincial city in Romania in 1987, and it charts the efforts of a young student Gabita to terminate her pregnancy, with the almost-single-handed help of her immensely resourceful friend Ottilia. A dodgy, yet consummately professional, illegal abortionist - superbly played by Vlad Ivanov - is engaged but Gabita's panicked modification of the truth causes problems that have disastrous effects. The film is beautifully shot, alternating between long virtuoso handheld sequences that remind one of the Dardenne brothers' Rosetta and even longer one-take static scenes that forensically observe both the abortion process and the girls' efforts to avoid detection. The lighting is despairingly gloopy, all grey and green tones, and it seemed even bleaker on second viewing, which makes further demands on the viewer. But the performances of all the cast, particularly the afore-mentioned Ivanov and Anamaria Marinca as Otilia, line the film with a surprising amount of humanity that leavens the task somewhat. Mungiu also leaves many things hanging in the film - for instance we are never told why Gabita has left it so late to have an abortion, and it is never exactly clear what the exchange that leads to the central tragic sacrifice articulates - and this once again gives the film a wider resonance than the average issue-of-the-week movie. There are of course many nuances that will only be familiar, I imagine, to Romanian audiences, many of which are delivered by the older generation at a birthday dinner for Otilia's boyfriend's mother. This scene is brilliantly shot in claustrophobic close-up and is the stuff of great drama; it is not even without some biting humour, such as a doctor and probably Party member (played by the ubiquitous Ion Sapdaru) who lashes out at the spoiled, ungrateful young.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is the fourth Cannes prizewinner to come out of Romania in the past three years and though the films have not been commercial successes back home (this one has yet to be released there in fact) their international profile has ensured that the directors Mungiu, Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu and Catalin Mitulescu, and others to come, will be able to continue making films. Quite why there is this sudden proliferation of great films from the country is unclear though there is really no reason why a country like Romania with a strong and celebrated artistic heritage and a pained history to accompany it should be short of the raw material to make great films. Some might argue that Mungiu's film is not as great as Puiu's The Death of Mr Lazarescu but it looks likely, in my eyes at least, to emulate it as film of the year.