It’s easy to see why so many are impressed by 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu’s much-lauded Cannes prizewinner.
In telling the period tale of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and her pregnant friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), two women seeking a clandestine and illegal abortion during the twilight years of the oppressive Nicolae Ceausescu regime, Mungiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu offer up an immediately riveting extended take aesthetic (single shots—both static and tracking—held long past the emotional breaking point) that makes the proceedings unfold like a controlled, virtually real-time nightmare. Mungiu’s technical choices (the film takes place over the course of a single day and grippingly feels it) and the fierce commitment of his cast are so impressive in the moment that they near-completely obscure the hollowness at the film’s center; if we were to measure movies solely by immediate experience, 4 Months would be, most decidedly, a masterpiece.
Yet retrospect forces a more temperate and considered view, for 4 Months’ heavily practiced mise en scène (by Mungiu’s own admission it was repeatedly drilled and rehearsed—as it turns out, to within an inch of its life) finally emphasizes a deep disconnect between form and meaning. The technique is precise, the significance muddled. At worst, the film comes off as a depressive, roller-coaster advertisement of olden times (call it Eastern bloc chic), one that no doubt appeals to the prides and prejudices of a Western audience longing for a nouvelle vague to call their own. That the present claims for a Romanian New Wave are most often based on the lone (and very deserving) merits of three exports (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; 12:08 East of Bucharest; and 4 Months) speaks to a particularly officious kind of ignorance—that we’d wish this country’s cinema to come to us so easily pre-packaged and categorized, freeing us of the necessary burden of personal inquiry and introspection, suggests that the lessons of the Cold War past (and many more pasts beside) have yet to take collective root.
Such is the often large gap that separates intention from action (not to mention personal reaction): as I was to learn in a very rewarding interview I conducted with Mungiu, he views 4 Months as a more implicit reflection of his twenties, an allegory for a generation of Romanians who came of age during the last years of Communism. This is most apparent during a brilliantly executed dinner scene where Otilia, centered in the frame, sits silently for almost ten minutes as her boyfriend’s family converses around her. The topics range from mundane, everyday chit-chat to heated political discourse, yet Mungiu forces us to focus on Otilia whose near-inscrutable reactions (so subtle they barely register as even a twitch) are clearly meant to play as a profound summation of character and milieu.
Yet despite Mungiu’s intimate knowledge of time and place, his work here comes off as chilly and hermetic, unenlightening beyond the film’s admittedly strong and effective surface. The deal-breaker is 4 Months’ final scene, in which Otilia and Gabita meet in a hotel restaurant and agree to never again speak of the day’s events. The sudden attempt at reflective moral quandary (as if the final scene of Pauline at the Beach was somehow appended to the climactic reel of United 93) makes for an ill fit with the incident-obsessed, experiential narrative that precedes it. Moreso, I just don’t buy the film’s pervasive mood of miserabilism—there’s little resonant sense of Otilia and Gabita’s lives outside this day, and so they come off as constructs in decided lack of a soul, prey to the agonized whims and notions of Mungiu’s historical fiction. Strange to long for the humorous undercurrents of the no less despondent Lazarescu and Bucharest, but perhaps making sense of the red specter requires just such a penetrating mix of solemnity and absurdity.
Keith Uhlich is co-editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.