Monday, 11 August 2014

Review of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007)

That title refers to the amount of time Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) has had a foetus in her body, although the film never quite spells it out. We do not, in fact, find out that Gabita is pregnant until about half an hour into the film, after we have observed the actions of her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she goes about, collecting money, booking hotels, buying cigarettes, promising her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean) that she will make it to his mother's birthday party at five, and meeting up with a softly spoken yet menacing abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) to finalise the details. It is 1987 in Romania; abortion is very illegal, and if the foetus is over four months old, then the abortionist will go to jail for murder, not simply abortion.

Cristian Mungiu, the director, keeps us on our toes for these early scenes, and I was reminded of a film called "Le Fils" by the Belgian Dardenne Brothers. That film, which is a masterpiece, has an opening half hour in which we see a portly, divorced man stalking a young child before... Well, I wouldn't dream of ruining it, but the Dardennes took us around the trees before arriving at the forest. The same is the case here. This film also shares a liberal use of a handheld camera, and a certain slice-of-life feeling which goes hand in hand with a realism which the film doggedly pursues.

This is an immersive film, then, which is trying to plant us firmly in the shoes of its characters. It does an interesting thing in not, actually, being about Gabita but Otilia instead. In doing so, it completely dodges any ethical consideration of the issues of abortion. This is firmly a document of what happens when someone decides to have an abortion. Any reaction, good or bad, lies firmly in the hands of the viewer, and for that matter my opinion remains unchanged (abortion is sometimes a necessary evil and each case must be taken on its own terms).

What this film most resembles is a thriller with roots firmly in the character study. We get to know Otilia, and we discover that she is a very good person who goes way, way, way above and beyond the call of duty in helping her friend. Gabita is a lot more selfish, and seems to be at least partially blind to the sacrifices Otilia is making of her. However, once more in the tradition of the Dardenne brothers, we do not feel pushed to judge one side or another. This is simply how it is; circumstances have simply fallen this way. This is how these people are. The excellent performances from all concerned inform this objectivity.

There is a certain political element to the film as well; abortion might not be discussed, bet we do know it is illegal, and the recurrent use of ID cards both as plot device and a dating/setting device recalls a police state.

The film also does an interesting thing in taking on the qualities of a thriller; for better or for worse, this is a truly nerve-wracking film. One 20 minute scene between the abortionist, Otilia and Gabita, had me genuinely tensed up, and there's a genius 10 minute still take at a dinner table which, when you take the characters frame of mind into account, becomes torturous. This is where the camerawork comes into its own; the raggedy, loose style informed by the handheld camera allows us to share the state of mind of the characters perfectly; I've long thought that the best thing a director can do is allow a camera to reflect the mental states of the characters, so we feel as opposed to simply know their plight, and this film has that in abundance.

Yet... I do not think this film is a masterpiece. I see it has 97 on Metacritic, and that's not a score to be sniffed at, yet looking over the reviews they seem to be mainly superficial; Joe Morgenstern claims it is an "elegantly crafted, brilliantly acted film". Rene Rodriguez claims it is "brilliant and suspenseful". Kenneth Turan claims it has "a commitment to reality unlike any we're used to seeing".

That's all well and good; really, it is. On a purely superficial level, this film is an astonishment. Yet there does seem to be something reductive about how it takes it's subject matter and makes a thriller out of it. I hate to sound greedy, but it could have gone deeper. I'm going to recall "Le Fils" again, because that film had scenes that were similarly armchair-gripping, and yet when I recall the final scene, I see it as a totem of the most absolute form of forgiveness, and a statement on our capabilities for empathy as a species.

Alas, no such luck. Normally I would not take such an abstruse form of criticism, but this has the form and feel of a masterpiece... What a shame, then, that it's a four star must-see as opposed to a five star enduring classic. Still, though, that does mark it as a must-see and that's more than enough for most people.

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