Critics are funny. When they aren't whiling away their time discussing the relative merits of Keira Knightley's and Javier Bardem's hairdos, one of their favorite occupations is "discovering" a neglected national film industry and championing it loudly. Fifteen years ago, it was Iran. Five years ago, South Korea. For the past two years, the hot international project has been Romania.
Never mind that that Eastern European country has only the barest of domestic movie industries and precious little exposure in the world outside film festivals — for heat-seeking scribes and programmers on the prowl for virgin territories, Romania is where the action is, largely on the strength of such critical darlings as Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest, and Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The latter opens this week in commercial theaters, and it's worth noting as a film and also as a cultural phenomenon.
The story couldn't be simpler. Two twenty-something Bucharest university roommates, Otilia and Gabita, spend an anxious couple of days obtaining an abortion for Gabita. The action takes place in 1987, during the final days of Romania's communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, when not only are abortions illegal but the entire country seems dipped in formaldehyde. In common with many Eastern Bloc filmmakers before him, Mungiu — a graduate of Romania's National University of Drama and Film — sketches in the requisite drabness of life in a repressive Cold War socialist society with stretched-out takes, interiors shot in harsh fluorescent light, and, appropriately for its predicament, a camera mercilessly placed at crotch level.
These stylistic touches are nothing new, but the 39-year-old writer-director takes time to flesh out his small handful of characters — too much time, in fact. This is one of those films in which, when someone walks down a street or hallway, the camera follows her all the way, step by step. Everything the characters do has a vague, disconnected feel to it, as if Bucharest were inhabited by somnambulists in the midst of a depressing dream.
Gabita the abortion patient (played by Laura Vasiliu) is naïve, irresponsible, not especially bright, and understandably nervous about her situation. The film's title, a reference to her pregnancy, refutes her lame contention that she's only two months along. Her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, last seen in a small role in Francis Ford Coppola's Youth Without Youth), on the other hand, is an irrepressible caregiver, devoting her entire on-screen time to taking care of other people's business. This includes not only shepherding Gabita through the clandestine tasks of booking a hotel room, arranging the abortion, and cleaning up afterward, but dealing with her own boyfriend, Adi (Alex Potocean), and their relationship.
The outlaw abortionist, of course, is a loathsome creep. As portrayed by actor Vlad Ivanov, the ironically named "Bebe" bristles with blunt inquiries and demands, one of which is having sex with Otilia as part of the price. His bedside manner is a bit lacking. The abortion procedure is not graphically shown, but it might as well be. It's cold sweat all the way. In the midst of this, Otilia is obliged to show up at the unwitting Adi's house for his mother's birthday party, all the while with one ear out for a phone call from the distressed Gabita. Time drags on. Mungiu films the party straight on with one fixed camera, as if to demonstrate there's no escape.
Part of filmmaker Mungiu's appeal to fashion-conscious Western film critics is no doubt his habit of lingering on the mundane, banal details of life in Nowheresville — a time and place safely identified as belonging to Romania's past. As in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the casual bluntness of the people Otilia and Gabita meet is matched by those people's utter indifference. No one really cares about these two women's problems. Does Mungiu force us to stare at the fetus? Hell yes. He holds on it for twice as long as David Cronenberg or the Coen Brothers would. That "realistic" splash of cold water, and little else, seems to be what distinguishes Romanian cinema in general. If 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days were to add up to something more than a deadpan tour of the bad old days, Mungiu would need to throw us a lifeline of some sort, a few more crumbs of characterization amid the gloom. That never happens.
Compared to Mungiu's abortion tale, André Téchiné's The Witnesses takes a character-driven approach to a similar social-problem subject. His drama of the early days of the AIDS epidemic in mid-1980s France is stocked with complex, multidimensional protagonists interrelating with great vigor.
Handsome young Manu (Johan Libéreau) arrives in Paris from the provinces and immediately begins cruising the gay sex scene in public parks. He and his opera-singer sister Julie (Julie Depardieu) share a room in a bordello hotel across the street from a nightclub full of junkies and prostitutes, Manu's pals. One of the vice squad cops who routinely raid the club is Mehdi (Sami Bouajila), whose wife Sarah (Emmanuelle Béart) is a successful writer of children's books as well as mother of their newborn baby boy. Their marriage is an "open" one. Among their circle of friends is Adrien (Michel Blanc), a doctor who, it so happens, picked up Manu in the park and now acts as his protector. When Manu, Adrien, Mehdi, and Sarah vacation together in Sarah's summer home in the South of France, Manu and Mehdi begin their secret affair. Somewhere along the line, Manu develops these strange lesions on his chest.
Thus, veteran director Téchiné (The Wild Reeds, Changing Times) takes us further, faster than the Romanian film, albeit into the well-traveled territory of a relationship drama with social ramifications. But it's not just that the French film packs more narrative incident into its frame than the Romanian — Téchiné's wistful story of love and loss gives us people we can care about instead of types pinned into a background. The Witnesses has an emotional maturity that adds richness to its social observation. Perhaps in time Mungiu and his colleagues will be able to accomplish the same.