I remember pitching up to Cannes last year, flicking through the festival’s glossy catalogue and having my interest sparked by a very stark still image and distinctly miserable extracted snatch of dialogue from a new film by an unknown – to me – Romanian director called Cristian Mungiu. I didn’t know his earlier film, ‘Occident’, nor much about his new one apart from the reductive bar-room chatter that it was ‘about abortion’.
As it turned out, Mungiu’s ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days’ was the most striking, original and memorable film of the event and justifiably won the Palme d’Or. His film also proved to be as dark and unrelenting as that first tantalising image of two terrified young women sitting with an older man in a drab hotel room and that snippet of conversation that mentioned an aborted foetus, ample blood, hotel sheets and an urgent need for a plastic bag.
Yes, there’s no escaping the fact: this is a very grim film. But it’s also a serious, terrifically made one that couldn’t be more sensitive to the individual and political ramifications of its horrific theme: the pressure of having to opt for a backstreet abortion in a country where terminations are strictly outlawed and so exist solely within the animal rules of the black market. Thirty-nine-year-old writer and director Mungiu has the wider canvas of his country’s former political system on his mind, but it’s the horrible intimacy of his story that stings the most.
A frail, dark-haired young woman, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) shares a room with blonde, more forthright Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) in an institution whose fabric suggests a prison – but which is in fact their university. We plunge into the film just as we leave it: at either end of the same day and mid-conversation between the two women. ‘Okay,’ says Otilia’s off-stage voice in the opening scene. ‘Thanks,’ says a nervous, smoking Gabita, her open suitcase on the bed and perhaps thanking her friend for her help – a level of support which increasingly tests the bounds and duties of friendship as the film goes on.
It’s Gabita who’s pregnant and forced to employ the services of a vicious hired-hand, Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), who comes recommended by a friend and growls that ‘everything in this world has its price’. But this is Otilia’s story. It’s with Otilia that Mungiu travels, leaving Gabita alone in a hotel room to honour a dinner engagement with her boyfriend’s parents or to haggle with officious receptionists over reservations and identity cards.
Mungiu’s film is set over one afternoon and evening in the late 1980s (although we have to guess the exact date). There’s no ostalgie on offer here – no wistful look over the shoulder at Romania’s past: this is a dark place – literally, when we hit the night-time streets – where ordinary people are forced to act and suffer as savages under the perverting influence of the law. Mungiu’s point is crystal clear: the past is best left behind but never forgotten. His story is intimate but everywhere in his film there are hints of a wider malaise, whether it’s the bread queue at the edge of his widescreen frame, the officious-verging-on-dictatorial attitude of a hotel receptionist or just the angry bark of a dog at night.
Perspective is a game that Mungiu likes to play (along with throwing a few intriguing non-sequiturs into the narrative), and off-stage drama is one of his sharpest tools: often we’re on the other side of the room, or the other side of the door, or even, during one of the film’s most tense episodes, the other side of the city from where the real action – Gabita’s abortion in a rented hotel room – is taking place. This has an engaging effect and provokes an intense study of what’s on screen and intense imagination about what’s not. It also allows Mungiu to ram home the horror of the abortion process by reserving his most intense images for when they’re most needed.
Mungiu’s pacy, violent drama evokes a sense of real-time and often the director allows his scenes to play out in a single take; both approaches recall 2006’s ‘The Death of Mr Lazarescu’, also from a young Romanian director and also to be considered one of a handful of exceptional films to put Romania slap-bang on the film map in recent years.