When I first heard that the 2007 Cannes jury had chosen Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to receive its prestigious Palme d'Or, I was crushed. They had chosen the abortion movie, the "issue" movie, over an actual work of art, like Ethan and Joel Coen's No Country for Old Men -- how unlike them. This festival had routinely been ahead of the curve, honoring Orson Welles, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Akira Kurosawa, David Lynch, the Coen Brothers, Jane Campion, Quentin Tarantino, Abbas Kiarostami and Gus Van Sant while the Academy was busy doling out awards to George Roy Hill, Ron Howard and Mel Gibson. However, when I finally got a chance to see it at the end of last year, I realized that, once again, the jury had been ahead of the curve. They had identified a new movement, perhaps even a "New Wave," coming from none other than Romania. And I'm not talking about the werewolf movie Blood and Chocolate.
Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu opened to enthusiastic notice in the U.S. in 2006, and I chose Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest as one of the ten best films of 2007. And these are just the films that have been blessed with U.S. distribution. What do these three films have in common? Several actors appear in at least two of the films, and actress Luminita Gheorghiu appears in all three. Cinematographer Oleg Mutu shot both Lazarescu and 4 Months, and Daniel Burlac produced 12:08 and 4 Months. Yet all three films have a similar approach and a similar tone. All three favor long shots, and a slow patient buildup of small details. Each withholds its major plotline until well after the characters are established. It must be something more, something in the air perhaps. Perhaps it's something similar to what was in the air in France in the late 1950s, Hollywood in the early 1970s, Hong Kong in the late 1980s, Iran in the mid-1990s and Argentina in the early 2000s.
Like the others, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is vaguely political in nature. Unlike the others, however, this one isn't particularly funny; in fact, it's deadly serious. In 1987, two college roommates, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), run around and prepare for some kind of mysterious trip. Gabita seems rather helpless, and Otilia does most of the work. Otilia speaks with her boyfriend (Alex Potocean) and tries to get out of a dinner party at his parents' house, but he guilts her into going anyway. Otilia also tries to check into a hotel room, only to be rudely told that because she never confirmed, the room has been given up. When Gabita and Otilia finally arrive in another hotel room, we realize that Gabita is pregnant and that they've come for an illegal abortion. (The title refers to how far Gabita is in her pregnancy.)
The "doctor" who shows up, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), has to be one of the most sinister presences in the history of movies, and yet it's a quiet performance. He's all business, with no sneering or cackling. He chides the women for breaking the rules: botching the initial meeting and checking into the wrong hotel. Any hints of playfulness or bedside manner are gone; there's no way to trust this man. It's a leap into the abyss for Gabita. It would be a shame to describe exactly what happens, but it's terrifying, suspenseful and emotionally overwhelming all at the same time. Otilia winds up going to her boyfriend's house, hoping she can leave quickly, but ends up staying for dinner. She repeatedly tries to phone the hotel room, but to no avail. Her bus ride back ranks with any of Griffith's last minute-rescue sequences, although the outcome here is shockingly different.
Like his predecessors, writer/director Mungiu guides his film with infinite patience, favoring long, still shots that capture all those mundane details that eventually turn out to be not so mundane. He knows when to cut someone out of a frame and when to include them, and when he does decide to include something, you can't take your eyes from it. In one scene, Otilia decides to look through the doctor's bag while he's in the other room, then fumbles to put everything back as he approaches. That's an ancient gambit -- almost Hitchcockian -- but Mungiu's single-frame, single-take approach adds freshness to it. That's the film's secret. Rather than asking why Gabita needs to go to a back-alley hotel-room doctor for help, it asks, more directly: will Gabita survive? Part of politics is guessing the future, but in the world of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, there's only today. There's only right now.(See also James Rocchi's Cannes Film Festival review.)