(17/01/08) – Cristian Mingiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamini si 2 Zile) came seemingly out of nowhere to win the Palme d’Or in Cannes last year. Set during the Nicolae Ceausescu period and detailing the tense days immediately prior to an illegal abortion in a hotel, it’s a depressing but very realistic snapshot of Romania circa 1987. The success of Mingiu’s film is partly in riding the momentum and confidence created by the recent wave of Romanian films that have produced some of the most reflective and challenging of contemporary cinema anywhere in the world. Most notable have been The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, 2005), Cristi Puiu’s Un Certain Regard winner and, also in Cannes, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Caméra d’Or 2006 winner 12:08 East of Bucharest (A Fost sau n-a fost?, 2006).
Otilia and Gabita are two students who share the same room in a university dormitory of a nameless Romanian town. Gabita is pregnant and, with abortion being illegal since 1966, a very clandestine and painful set of events will soon take place. The film doesn’t properly explain why Gabita has gone to the time limit of her being able to have an abortion. However, this only furthers the tension and urgency that make a compelling story. With her student savings and the securing of 300 from her stable boyfriend, Otilia manages to cover the 3000 leu needed to pay for a cheap hotel room for three nights. Further tensions are created, however, when it becomes a struggle to re-book the hotel room, threatening the whole cloak-and-dagger operation. Taking big risks with little resources, Gabita and Otilia are not only in a secret power struggle against the state but Otilia is forced to negotiate with the mysterious Mr. Bebe who is crucial in performing the abortion.
Despite Gabita’s precariousness, we are constantly aligned to Otilia and the limits imposed on her movements and actions throughout the film. Being an ordinary young woman caught up in an intense situation, it invites notions of how we would behave in such circumstances. Her contradictory emotions of complicity and resentment towards Mr. Bebe come at a costly price to her, and not just financially. Bebe taking full advantage of Otilia provokes an emotionally charged reaction but when looking at his own situation in this world, as a family man, it’s hard to pass moral judgments.
The director only shoots on locations as he doesn’t like sets but this created certain challenges replicating the period as towns in Romania have changed dramatically since 1987. Mingiu says "In the late eighties there was no light on the streets….and a very bleak and gray atmosphere overall. This explains the grading of the film." There were also some cultural references to this Romanian era, particularly that Kent cigarettes were massively in demand, as were Tic Tacs. On Anamaria Marinca (who plays Otilia), Mingiu says: "She was great – the whole film rests on her shoulders." Fully confident in her, Mingiu gave free rein to the thriller element of the last part of the film which is totally represented by Otilia’s fate.
The interior scenes at the hotel, with the static camera and the silent desperation of the characters, particularly Otilia, constantly create the feeling that something dramatic is going to happen. The camera opens the space up but then somehow conceals it, therefore making the framing oscillatory, gravitational and claustrophobic. This is fundamental to the film’s structure. The characters maneuvers into screen space are seemingly magnetic so that when they move off screen they are soon pulled back into frame again. As a result, the controversial scenes in the film, particularly towards the end, are not considered so grotesque in their explicitness because the film refutes any moral doctrine which may have been considerably precipitated from the outset.
After 1989, when the now free country made abortion legal again, sources said that as many as half a million women had died as a result of having illegal abortions and the film explores the restrictions on the freedom of choice at this time. Regards making a film about this period in Romania, Mingiu said "I was amazed to discover how common yet hidden such stories are….I didn’t use them in the film – I just followed the story I know best." This film is the first of a planned series called Tales from the Golden Age, a subjective history of Romania during the last years of Ceaucescu’s regime. The aim of the project is to talk about that period with no direct reference to communism but only through different stories focused on personal struggles in a time of misfortune.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is currently playing in the UK, Portugal, Austria and Turkey, followed by Spain and the USA on 25 January.