4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Review
The last major film dealing with the everyday realities of life in Romania, Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu certainly received plenty of acclaim from critics and award bodies, who saw its story of the indignities of an old man spending his dying hours at the hands of an ill-equipped and inadequate health service as being an important document of relevant humanitarian and social issues as they apply to many people in present-day Romania. At three hours long, slow and with not a great deal in the way of plot, it must certainly have been difficult to convince anyone but the most dedicated arthouse filmgoer that it was worth their time to go and see it, despite the high praise it received. Set in 1987, and dealing with the difficulties faced by a young woman seeking to have an illegal abortion in a time of great social hardships and restrictions endured by the ordinary Romanian public under the rule of the Communist dictator Ceausescu, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days doesn’t sound like it is going to be any less demanding on the viewer, but in reality it’s one of the most intense, gripping and nerve-shatteringly disturbing experiences you will see on the screen this year.
The first of a proposed series of three films ironically gathered together under the title of Tales from the Golden Age, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days depicts the reality of living in Ceausescu’s Romania in all its horror - not through any melodramatic contrivance of plot, nor through any direct signs of military or authoritarian oppression, but through a slow accumulation of small, apparently insignificant details. Much of this is seen from the perspective of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), a student who is trying to organise a backstreet abortion for her roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). The little details of their preparations show the conditions and restrictions they live under – the purchasing of not only foreign cigarettes through blackmarket dealers, but even everyday necessities like shampoo and little luxuries like Tictacs.
Even when organising a hotel where the operation will be carried out, according to strict instructions that have been given out over the phone, Otilia is subjected to further indignities from surly, indifferent and authoritarian desk clerks, who claim to have no record of her booking, suggesting that unless it’s accompanied by a bribe of sufficient value, it’s not worth their while to do anything about it. Even having eventually managed to obtain a room at another hotel at an elevated price through patient persistence and the added bribe of a pack of foreign cigarettes, Otilia still remains constantly under the watchful eye of the hotel staff and security. It’s not that they are suspicious of any illegal activity she may be conducting - even more disturbingly, the constant monitoring and scrutiny of one’s comings and goings just seems to be just a part of daily life under a repressive regime.
All these small daily inconveniences and infractions of official and unwritten rules are one thing, but attempting to participate in the carrying out of an abortion is another matter, one that is punishable quite severely by the law. As such a procedure is completely illegal in Romania under Ceausescu, Gabita, on the advice of a friend, has contacted Mr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), a man who will carry out the operation for her. Her roommate Otilia goes to great pains to arrange the meeting and bring Mr Bebe into the hotel past the eyes of the watchful staff. It makes for a tense and fraught situation, but there are many greater indignities and horrors that the two young women must yet endure.
In outline, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days might recall the wartime period deprivations and situations of Vera Drake, but there’s no kitsch period reconstruction or any trace of Mike Leigh’s lifeless academicism in Cristian Mungiu’s depiction of Romanian life under Ceausescu. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has the immediacy of the Dardenne Brothers, making extensive use of Steadicam (and sometimes not-so-steady-cam) showing extended scenes, without cutaways, in almost real time. It’s utterly compelling – in no small part down to the convincing performances of an impressive cast – the director placing the characters into a number of seemingly mundane situations, giving no respite and holding them in suspense from unknown but potentially serious events that are unfolding elsewhere, creating an incredible sense of tension. The manner of holding long takes also implicates the viewer entirely in the scene, and there’s not a single false note, flawed gesture, action or contrivance in the entire film to give assurance that the dangers are anything but very, very real and always imminent.
And ultimately, this would seem to be the purpose of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It’s not an academic study of the rights and wrongs of abortion and it’s not a social critique of the Ceausescu regime – though of course both issues are raised and are certainly relevant. It’s about control and freedom on a wider scale. It shows how an authoritarian system of any kind can subtly eat into everyday freedoms, and insinuate a sense of mistrust towards others. Having no freedom and fearful of being held to account themselves for any inadvertent infringement of rules, petty officials seek protection and a certain sense of control through enforcement of their own conditions and restrictions. It also shows how ordinary people, whether through attempting to cheat on the payment of a bus ticket, or on a larger scale through the procurement of an abortion, will strive to regain whatever control they can over their own lives, bodies and actions. The human cost of living under such a restrictive social order is historically all too well known, giving birth to monstrous behaviour and actions that are too terrible to ever be spoken about.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
One can usually rely on Artificial Eye to provide a strong transfer and indeed, the image quality here is most impressive, handling the colour and darkness of the film accurately, with clarity and definition. The encoding is progressive and the film’s original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is retained in the anamorphic presentation. There are no flaws, marks or dustspots on the print and no evidence either of any encoding problems or artefacting. The image tends slightly towards the soft side, but the image remains clear, focussed and detailed throughout.
Unusually, the surround mix is presented as Dolby Digital 3.1. I’m not sure exactly what speaker distribution this suggests, since there appeared to be activity on all channels. Certainly, in keeping with the nature of the film, it’s more subtle than the usual full 5.1 mix, giving the reverberation of hotel rooms and night-time scenes a more naturalistic feel. It’s perhaps a bit too subtle, since there is a vital phone ring during one particular scene that is only barely audible in 3.1, and only slightly clearer in the Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, which I am sure was more pronounced during the theatrical presentation of the film. In terms of clarity, tone and impact however, the 3.1 mix is most impressive.
English subtitles are included and are optional. They are presented in a clear white font of appropriate size.
The trailer is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen and it is suitably intense, but perhaps shows a little too much.
Featurette – The Romanian Tour (15:39)
Since there are less than 50 screens in the whole of Romania, the filmmaker’s took a mobile projection unit on a caravan tour across the country to give people the chance to see Palme d’Or winning film. The short feature follows the tour across 15 towns in 30 days, getting the views of those who came to watch it.
Cristian Mungiu Interview 1 (25:22)
In a superb and highly informative interview, the director talks about the development of the script and the urge to strive for a sense of truth and authenticity at every stage of the film’s making. Some of the shooting choices are elaborated upon with alternative takes shown for specific scenes.
Cristian Mungiu Interview 2 (24:02)
The second exclusive Artificial Eye interview is conducted in English with a very fluent director, who repeats some of the information in the previous interview but elaborates on the social realism of the story, his personal interest in the subject, the locations used and the public reaction to the film.
Interview with Anamaria Marinca (15:52)
The leading actress talks about her acting background, how she came to work on 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and the input she had into the character and the script.
Interview with Oleg Mutu (6:25)
The director of photography gives more detail on the lighting in the film and explains how simple effects were achieved in limiting circumstances for specific impact.
Two longer alternative endings are shown (3:13) and (3:20), each of them extending beyond where the film actually finishes. A deleted scene where Gabita meets her father (6:38) is also included. The scenes are shown in a non-anamorphic, letterboxed presentation, and the quality is fine.
Deservedly the winner of the Palme d’or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an important film, making fascinating social observations in its documenting the historical reality of living under of an oppressive regime, while also being simply a brilliant piece of suspenseful cinema. The film also won the Prix de l'Education Nationale at Cannes, giving it the licence to be shown in every school in France, a decision that was challenged by the Minister of Education considering the controversial nature of the film’s treatment of the abortion issue, an issue that also drew criticism from the Vatican. Thankfully, the French certification board had the greater sense to see past these issues to the real subject at the heart of the film and certified 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days “Tous Publics” – effectively a “U” certificate – allowing the film to be shown freely to anyone. And ironically, that’s what the film is about – showing how fear, oppression and the misuse of control and authority over people can have serious consequences, and the impact such abuse can have on a populace too afraid or blinkered to challenge or speak out against it. Artificial Eye’s DVD presentation of the film is simply superb, a fine edition supplemented with intelligent, highly informative and interesting extra features.