16 February 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

I went into 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days with the highest of expectations, given how much extraordinary praise the film has received from most critics. During the first twenty minutes or so, I wasn't sure I would make it through the entire movie -- it was, I thought, similar in style to a kind of movie I find unbearable: a style based on long handheld shots, a soundtrack that contains little or no music and lots of environmental sounds (characters breathing, eating, walking), and a general attitude that seems to fetishize "artlessness", though offers little to replace the art it so disdains. (Many films these days indulge such a style, or come close to it, but the two that have caused me the most tedium and pain are Keane and Day Night Day Night.)

And then 4 Months grabbed my attention and didn't let go until the final frame. It may have been that I was simply unprepared to give the film the sort of attention it deserved until then, or -- more likely -- that the early scenes performed a kind of prestidigation, lulling me into the semi-conscious state I needed to descend to so that I could then be jolted awake. Though the style of the film did not change (and its style is one of its triumphs), 4 Months grew to be one of the most suspenseful and unsettling movies I have seen in a very long time.

The story concerns a pair of Romanian women in the late 1980s, Gabita and Otilia, who are college roommates. Gabita seeks to get an abortion, an illegal procedure, and the less naive, more streetsmart Otilia helps her get a hotel room and meet the abortionist. The plot is a simple one, with few complications, but it is the presentation that matters. The film unfolds almost in real-time. We learn very little about the characters' lives or backgrounds. There is no speechmaking about life or politics. The situation is what it is, and people deal with it as well as they can. In this world, everything is excruciating -- the effects of a totalitarian bureaucracy seep into every interaction, poverty digs distrust into every glance, and desperation rules every detail.

Director Cristian Mungiu trusts his story so completely that the film never feels in danger of explaining itself, never seems to insult our intelligence as viewers, never threatens to connect stray and ancillary dots. It is a movie of implications, silences, impossible choices, great unknowns. Because of this -- not in spite of it -- 4 Months possesses a rare tension. Though the first twenty minutes or so felt interminably long to me, everything after that seemed to zoom by, and each minute added more dread to the almost-unbearable mix.

The filming is particularly extraordinary as well, because Oleg Mutu's cinematography seems at first flat, wan, washed out, dull. On reflection, though, it is a masterpiece of unity, a wonder built from an extremely limited palette. The night scenes are particularly effective, a stunning mix of careful photography and admirably restrained and thoughtful editing. Every choice, from sound to image to editing to acting, contributes to the intensity of the film's effect.

After leaving the theatre, I said to my companions that I liked the movie -- much as one can "like" a film that is such an eviscerating experience -- but that I didn't think it was as revelatory as the hype had led me to hope for. A few hours later, though, and the movie remains so vivid in my mind that I think my initial reaction was one conditioned by bad habits and impatience. 4 Months is not the sort of movie to lead to bang-pow epiphanies upon exiting the theatre. Instead, it digs in and lets its riches reveal themselves upon reflection. The tension carries us through the narrative, but the immense artfulness of the entirety blooms best in memory.