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The Romanian New Wave

Having a friend who's a Romanian filmmaker has its perks.  For one thing, I can get her own perspective and opinion on the Romanian New Wave, which brought films such as 'The Death of Mr Lazarescu', '12:08 East of Bucharest' and 'If I Want to Whistle, I Whistle' to a worldwide audience.  Since then, we have seen this veritable wave move onto Iran and Greece with films such as the highly-acclaimed and Oscar-winning 'A Separation' and the twisted world of 'Dogtooth' riding the crest of their respective waves.

'4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' is arguably the best of Romanian wave riders, winning the prestigious Palm D'Or at Cannes in 2007.  Cat tells me its representation of Romania is a little off and the dialogue is a little clunky in its original form, but she also acknowledged the need for films seeking international recognition to economise with the reality of a Romania in the final years of communist dictatorship.

I myself thought it was one of the tensest dramas I'd seen in years when I watched it back in 2010.  It was well-paced and consistently gripping for a film with such a simple premise.  Earlier in the night we had spoken about Lynne Ramsay's 'We Need to Talk About Kevin', a film adapted from the Orange Prize-winning novel by Lionel Shriver.  She thought the film's feature length was a little self-indulgent, and would have retained similar impact if filmed over 20 minutes.  I tended to agree, though having read the book, the direction was more sure-footed than first meets the eye.  Tilda Swinton encapsulates Eva Khatchadourian rather brilliantly, and while the same can't be said for her husband, it works as an adaptation of the book surprisingly well.  The novel is the most brilliantly-written piece of fiction I think I've ever read, and though it is ostentatious and actually really boring in places, it works on a level that only fans of the book would understand.  

You know when you're cool when your friends refer to a film as simply '4, 3, 2' and you know exactly what they're talking about.  Anyway, here's a review that I wrote of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in 2010.  In fact, exactly two years ago today!

I had only seen one other Romanian film before 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  The Death of Mr Lazarescu was a bleak portrayal of a Romanian health service steeped in bureaucracy.  The film was so severely pitch-black a comedy that it had no qualms in spouting the film’s outcome in its own title.  As I put the DVD into the player, I had preconceptions of a more light-hearted affair, and was duly disappointed by the ostensible sparseness of the storyline.  It took a few weeks of quiet contemplation to conclude that the film was in fact rich with a very humane touch.  To give my approach to it a rather clumsy sporting analogy: I’d taken a baseball bat to a badminton game.  I’d approached the film from completely the wrong angle.  While I was waiting for the slapstick and one-liners to kick in, there led a man who was fighting his own personal battle with death.  It could be argued that the filmmakers mimicked the austerity of the Romanian health service: unforgiving and unwilling to do you any favours.

On the surface, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is as much about time as The Death of Mr Lazarescu.  It follows the story of a university student who is helped by her roommate to get an illegal abortion.  Their plans to do this begin to unravel from the opening scene as unhelpful hoteliers, grey-faced ticket inspectors and the general severity of communist society treat the innocent with more than a little suspicion.  The film is set in 1987 during the last years of the Ceauşescu regime.  Black market trading is often a necessity as the coldness of a dictatorship permeates through the walls and into Bucharest city life.  The time it took director Cristian Mungiu to bring this story to the screen may be indicative of the severity of life in communist Romania during this period.  Indeed, Romanian cinema has experienced a new wave of filmmakers as of late willing to address life during the Ceauşescu regime, suggesting that the past is enough in the past and wounds have healed sufficiently to be put those experiences on screen. 

If the two can be separated, themes of claustrophobia and lack of space are both running themes throughout 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  While the film’s most pivotal scenes take place in the cramped conditions of a hotel room, the lack of space can be attributed to the fact that it took two rejections from other hotels and hard negotiations at the one they managed to secure a place at.  Now in the room (albeit to the disapproval of the abortionist), the two girls must negotiate in terms of payment.  They must also establish facts from falsehoods (this is where the title lends its name from) as the abortionist gets increasingly irritable in a country that vehemently opposes abortion. Even the supposed respite of an anniversary celebration that the pregnant girl’s friend must attend is cramped around a table and muddled with a good-natured but unfocused projection of voices across this relatively small area.  Whenever the same girl goes outside, she is rushed on by passing traffic or followed by malevolent, shadowy figures.  When she is not negotiating space with the people deemed the authority, she is negotiating her way around another cramped space of a hotel room.  And she is even hassled when she goes outside!  The combined effect of claustrophobia and lack of space adds to the intensity within the hotel room itself.  You feel the weight of a dictatorship leaning against every door, wall and window, vying to get in (it reminds me of a quip I heard today: “Where do you go when you die,” the man asks.  “I don’t know,” the other man replies, “But you go to a morgue first.”  You get a feeling that whoever gets to these people first will book in an appointment with the taxidermist as soon as they’ve been handcuffed).  This sense of dread is etched on the faces of the three people involved.  They all know that camaraderie is dead in the water.  If the hoteliers got a whiff of what was going on in their last remaining hotel room, they wouldn’t even need the promise of a hot meal to tattle on them.  So there is a tangible sense that these girls, as well the abortionist himself (the man is an unscrupulous character for sure, but he is as unscrupulous as the girls are naïve and I’m not sure which, in this situation, would be considered the lesser of the two evils) is risking a great deal. 

Another aspect of the film that deserves praise is the way in which time is used to build a sense of dread.  In the film’s first scene, the girls pack for the trip to see the abortionist.  The pregnant girl orders her friend to get the correct type of soap, which suggests that under normal circumstances the girl is the more headstrong and forthright of the two.  However, as the appointment draws nearer, the girl who may well have been a well-rounded twenty year-old when we were first introduced to her has been reduced to someone who looks and acts like someone in her mid-teens.  Both girls are out of their depth when it comes to something as dangerous as an illegal abortion, but while one can sustain the pretence of composure, the other simply can’t.  As the abortionist learns during heated negotiations, these are not sisters, but roommates.  And while the camera tracks one girl as she is forced to go to an anniversary party for her boyfriend’s mum and dad, the other girl is left with her own thoughts, not knowing whether the operation will turn out to be successful or otherwise.  This is where Mungiu, the director, uses time to greatest effect.  We see the party play out in real time; first off, by witnessing the excruciating way in which the girl is introduced to her boyfriend’s parents as she struggles to make contact with her bed-bound friend.  It is a scene that pits politeness against the sluggishness of a family occasion and against an urgent need to be somewhere else.  All these elements jostle to the fore countless times as the girl’s mind races amongst a roomful of ramblers. It is clear where the girl would rather be: she would rather tear away the glossy veneer of relatives trying too hard to impress to reveal a scene of much greater importance inside the hotel room.  The director has created a world made up of two places: one place is where this girl is currently placed and the other is where the girl needs to be. 

The sense of dread, duty and urgency is really quite tangible in this scene.  I’ve focused on this particular scene because it’s just so well done, but make no mistake: every other scene is equal to it. I can scarcely believe the film as a whole managed to outdo another towering achievement of a film about an illegal abortion: Mike Leigh’s mighty Vera Drake.  But it has, and was fully-deserving of the Palme d'Or at Cannes in 2007.  Put the effort in and you’ll get it back in spades. 

***** out of *****


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