Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Wed Sep 26, 2007 4:14 pm 
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A fine modulation of grays

It’s not exactly clear to me why this film won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. Mungiu has exercised tight control over his material. His actors are impeccable. His visual style is appropriate to the theme. His subject is compelling and his focus on it is unflinching. But still. There is something missing here, some flair, some life, even. Some people think the Coens’ No Country for Old Men ought to have won the Palm. We’ll see about that.*

Abortion was banned in Romania in 1966. Those who got abortions and those who gave them risked imprisonment. The story is set in the late Eighties, in the last days of the Ceaucescu regime. As in the East Germany of The Lives of Others, we find that to outsiders the last days of communism seem far grimmer than we might have realized. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are university roommates. Otilia helps Gabita get an abortion. The man who performs it is ironically named Bebe (Vlad Ivanov).

4 months
was shot by Oleg Mutu, the cameraman for the remarkable Cristi Puiu film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. He uses no dollies or cranes, tripod or Steadicam for this. The film is developed in a prevailing dull, even blue-gray. During interior scenes, there is very little camera movement. All this is to convey the mood of limitation, constraint, hopelessness. Otilia is the firm one. Gabita is nervous and sensitive. She is weak; she has put this off too long; and her fears cause her to lie. She makes the hotel reservation on the phone, instead of in person (the hotel, obviously, is in the same town). She lies to Bebe and says Otilia is her sister, because she is afraid to go and meet him but sends Otilia to do it instead. She lies and tells Bebe she’s two months pregnant, though she knows it’s much longer.

Bebe is a very mean man. But Ivanov is a remarkable actor in his way (Mongiu built the film around him), and there is nothing simplistic about his evil. In fact, he turns rather nice at the end of the process, wishing Gabita well and offering to come back later that day or tomorrow, if needed. But that is after he has exacted a toll of humiliation and menace.

The whole process of the abortion is excruciating, not because of any physical horrors or gore, though there is a little gore, but because the film drives home the uncertainty and danger of it all, and draws things out to the maximum. You don’t know what’s going to happen.

A dictatorship is terrifying but as Nabokov delighted in showing in some of his novels such as Invitation to a Beheading, it is also a papier mache charade with the muse of comedy grinning secretly around every dark and greasy corner.

What is seriously absurd in 4 months is that at a time when Gabita may be in mortal danger in a soulless hotel room, Otilia goes off for several hours to have dinner with her boyfriend and for the first time meet all his family, an experience she seems to find as tedious and excruciating as we do.

4 months is at its best is in the details, which convey better than the story the gray grimness of life in communist Romania. That’s what Mungiu wants to convey. The endless search for a pack of Kents. The black marketers down the hall. The miserable local cars. The ill-lighted streets. The hotel room clerks that turn having a reservation into a suspicious condition. There are other communist Romanias, other Romanian experiences in brighter colors. But maybe that is what the jury at Cannes wanted too, though, and felt compelled to reward—the gray version. And Mungiu’s symphony of grays is impeccably modulated and consistent. I don’t completely buy it. But there is a mastery of craft here.

Seen at the press screenings of the New York Film Festival, Lincoln Center, 2007.

*No Country for Old Men is to be screened at the Walter Reade Theater in one week.

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©Chris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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