A deceptively simple tale carrying a tremendous wallop, Cristian Mungiu's third feature 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days leads the new Romanian cinema into this year's Cannes competition with flying colours.
The market may not be bowled over at first sight - after all, critics were more than a little circumspect after first seeing Cristi Puiu's The Death Of Mr Lazarescu, which shares much of Mungiu's vision of the world - but in due course this will easily beat most other, far more pretentious, arthouse products being peddled around. The film should give Mungiu and his cast a better than average shot at a reward with this year's jury.
Though it takes place two years before the demise of the Ceausescu regime and bears all the grim trademarks of those times, this is far more than a historical survey of the period.
For behind a banal, rather sordid, illegal abortion story, lies a rich exploration of character, friendship, responsibility and devotion under duress. The film's uncompromisingly downbeat look offers so little in the way of respite for the audience that even the worst expectations that threaten to materialise at every turn would be a sort of relief compared to the iniquities and humiliations of real life.
The leads, Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, never put a foot wrong, giving remarkably controlled and unaffected performances which are an enormous asset for this well-rounded, precisely attuned work.
Otilia (Marinca) and Gabita (Vasiliu) share a room in the rundown dormitory of a small-town university. Gabita is pregnant and wants to get rid of the baby; Otilia is her best friend and will do anything to help her out.
They are directed to a certain Mr Bebe (Ivanov), who is supposed to do the job cheaply, since that is all they can afford. But once they are in a hotel room and ready for the illegal operation - which in Ceausescu's Romania incurred heavy penalties - it turns out that Gabita is more than four months pregnant (hence the film's title) and that Mr Bebe does not expect to be paid in cash, demanding instead that both girls go to bed with him before he performs the operation.
Having no alternative, the women have to swallow the bitter pill. Once his demands are satisfied and the operation is completed, he issues them with a long list of instructions, and disappears.
To make matters worse, Otilia has to attend the birthday of her boyfriend's mother. She gets there late and finds herself in the midst of a quietly upsetting dinner party, where the older generation lament the state of modern youth and exchange recipes. Otilia tries desperately to reach Gabita by phone and when there is no answer, she has an argument with her boyfriend and leaves.
From here, Mungiu proceeds with admirable tenacity, eliminating anything that might sound like a false note, allowing no glimmer of hope to penetrate the drab lifelike image of the world in which he grew up and obviously knows so well.
It is a world so full of small miseries and frustrations, that bigger issues are never allowed to emerge. Life in the present is so distressing, there is never an opportunity to think about the future.
The entire film consists of long sequence shots taken with a remarkably steady handheld camera. While it never leaves the main characters for long, nor crowd them, it does allow the unflattering backdrops to play as important a role as the actors themselves.
Locations, all of which are crowded, bland and uninviting, have been carefully chosen for the purpose and the dialogue has been pared down to elementary matter-of-fact realism.
Both the lead actresses are required to express a whole gamut of complex emotions, which they do with no visible histrionics whatsoever. Marinca, as the more assertive Otilia, goes way beyond duty in her devotion to her friend, and Vasiliu, as the infuriatingly passive Gabita, hides behind endless lies and shifts responsibilities to others whenever she can. Vlad Ivanov's implacable Mr Bebe, who almost never raises his voice, inspires anguish by his mere presence.
Why Not Productions