a) Thank God for Cannes!
In an interview with Domenico La Porta given on May 19, 2012, Cristian Mungiu, winner of the Palme D’Or for feature film at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 for his movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, explains the reason why his movies are more popular abroad than in his native country, Romania: “Our industry’s problem is not funding, it’s cultural. Films that are not entertainment are not popular in Romania. This is why we receive less money from the state for arthouse films, and why I had to look for international funding. My film will be seen much more abroad than it will be at home. That’s just how it is. We have to hold on and continue to produce good quality films also aimed at the Romanian people.”
This problem, unfortunately, is global. In popular culture, it’s easy to make fun of Cannes and the movies it features, awards and promotes. Often described as political, boring and pretentious in its consecration of avant-garde cinema, the Cannes Film Festival is very prestigious (with movie critics and directors) yet… oddly unpopular with the general public. There’s even a (pretty good) joke about it in Romania that one of the movies that received an award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 was shot by accident on surveillance cameras. And yet… let’s turn it around. Take a moment to imagine how much easier it would be to make fun of today’s popular Hollywood movies! Formulaic plots, broomstick, one-dimensional characterizations, weak acting, lots of special effects as a distraction for lack of substance: for the most part, these are the movies that draw the public make hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office, internationally.
Frankly, I can’t understand how viewers manage to stay awake, much less laugh, during yet another formulaic romantic comedy about one-night stands becoming love of one’s life; another Las Vegas vacation gone wrong; or another “friends with benefits” scenario that ends up, predictably, becoming a hot and heavy, meaningful romance. In its prejudicial preference for hyper-promoted, over-funded and, frankly, silly films as “real entertainment,” the general public risks missing out on well-acted, beautifully shot, and incredibly moving and entertaining movies, made both by independent and by some Hollywood filmmakers.
b) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: A Portait of the Communist Era
In the same interview I cited above, with Domenico La Porta, Cristian Mungiu discusses his recent movie, Beyond the Hills (which won an award for “best screenplay” at the Cannes Film Festival 2012, and for which the leading actresses, Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, shared the “best actress” award). Mungiu states that his movies are not intended to be portraits of an era. He states that Beyond the Hills in particular doesn’t make any general comments against religion: “There is no generalization, and I’m not describing Romanian society through this little community. A film is not able to be all-encompassing.” I would beg to differ with the last statement. I find that the movie 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days–which, along with The Lives of Others (2006) is one of my favorite movies–is an accurate and sweeping portrait of the drab and repressive communist era. In fact, I remember thinking of Mungiu’s movie and of The Lives of Others as I was writing my novel about the communist epoch under Ceausescu, Velvet Totalitarianism (translated into Romanian as Intre Doua Lumi, Editura Curtea Veche 2011). These two movies showed me that you don’t have to try to describe all aspects of a society or of a historical period to offer a sweeping portrayal of that epoch.
In fact, it can be much more effective to show compellingly and in-depth a slice of life, as Mungiu does in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, that offers viewers (or readers) a glimpse upon the vaster forces—of repression and corruption—that governed society and culture in Ceausescu’s Romania. A. O. Scott from The New York Times declared this movie the “number one film of the year”. The high praise is well-deserved. The movie describes how two close friends—Otilia, played by Anamaria Marinca, and Gabita Dragut, played by Laura Vasiliu, cope with the practical and moral difficulties of one of them getting an abortion during the 1980’s. This is not an easy decision, morally or practically, given the fact that birth control and abortion are outlawed at this time in Romania and those who violate the law risk facing severe penalties. I’d like to offer a little background into the period, which the movie captures so well.
c) “Pronatalist” Policies in Communist Romania
From the beginning, Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania’s tyrannical communist dictaor, made rapid industrialization a cornerstone of his domestic policy. During the 1960’s, however, the country approximated zero population growth, which meant, in the long run, a reduced labor force. In response, Ceausescu abolished abortion in 1966, except for cases of rape, incest and danger to the life of the mother or if the mother was over 45 years old and had given birth to at least four children. Later, he introduced more punitive pronatalist measures to offer Romanian citizens further incentives to have more children. The government increased taxes for men and women who remained childless after the age of 25. In 1967 Ceausescu practically abolished divorce. A miniscule quota of maximum 28 divorces was allowed in the whole country that year. The government also offered some positive incentives. Mothers received a monetary reward upon the birth of their third child and the income taxes of couples with three or more children were lowered by 30 percent.
The policy that proved to have disastrous consequences for the country was the abolition of birth control. Contraceptives, which were not manufactured in Romania, were banned, making effective birth control extremely difficult. Initially, the birth rate rose dramatically, but then quickly declined again as women began resorting to dangerous, illegal abortions, which could sometimes be obtained in exchange for a carton of Kent cigarettes. By the early 1980’s, the government took more intrusive measures to regulate women’s reproductive cycles. As Mungiu’s movie illustrates as well, doctors performed mandatory monthly gynecological exams on all women of reproductive age to detect and monitor pregnancies. The government also launched a propaganda campaign praising “patriotic” couples that had several children. These measures, however, failed to achieve the desired results. After decades of repressive policies, birthrates in Romania were only slightly higher than those of nations where abortion was legal. However, these draconian measures did manage to increase the number of unwanted children, many of whom were put up for adoption in Romania’s infamous orphanages, which began to receive international media attention during the 1980’s.
d) 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: Compelling characterizations and stunning cinematography
So what did women do when they got pregnant and did not want to raise children in such dire conditions? They often made the difficult choice that Gabriela Dragut was forced to make in the movie 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days: getting an illegal abortion. This choice carried with it two inherent risks. First, there was the obvious one of violating the law and getting caught, which could result in loss of job and status and even long jail sentences. But as the movie illustrates, there was an even greater danger of falling into the hands of those who habitually violate laws: unscrupulous sociopathic predators. This is precisely what Gabriela and Otilia encounter in the man they desperately appeal to for help: the illegal abortionist that goes by the name of “Mr. Bebe”. From the beginning, we get the sense that there’s something not quite right, psychologically, with Mr. Bebe. He takes charge of every situation and appears as a bully even when he doesn’t raise his voice. He’s also exceedingly controlling. For instance, he forbids his own mother from exiting the apartment to buy sugar. We know that’s a red flag, since sociopaths foster isolation and minutely control their victims.
Taking charge of the two young women as soon as he finds himself alone in the hotel room with them, he bullies them into accepting to sleep with him. Typical of a sociopath, he presents this act of rape as a moral highground. Turning the tables on them, Mr. Bebe makes them feel immoral and cheap. He screams at them that that he’s not a beggar and that he’s not going to perform an illegal action which may result in the loss of his freedom for a mere 3000 lei, the amount of money the girls were able to scrounge up to pay for the illegal abortion. Not seeing any way out, the young women agree to his price, which emotionally is far heavier than they had anticipated. While they are very traumatized by this experience of prostituting themselves for an abortion, Mr. Bebe takes it all in stride. After he sleeps with them, he even begins to address them in a familiar and friendly fashion, as if nothing happened. The sociopath’s shallow emotions contrasts sharply with the emotionally charged, devastated response of the two young women.
The movie captures the darkness of the communist era not just in its compelling characterizations and realistic plot, but also in its spectacular cinematography. Almost every shot is gray or dark, with the exception of the clinical, white images of the medical scenes. Otilia is usually shot from the back, to suggest that she lacks agency when the choices she is forced to make are so limited and abject. After Mr. Bebe leaves their hotel room, the two young women ruminate about the situation, going over their mistakes and what they could have done differently to avoid the deep humiliation they just endured. Otilia blames her friend for getting her into such a difficult and dreadful situation, almost shifting the blame from the sociopathic predator beyond her control to her sweet, helpless and passive friend Gabita, who is a fellow victim. Yet their situation is symptomatic of what practically every Romanian citizen endured at the time in many life decisions: a severe limitation of one’s freedom, of one’s choices and the repeated violation of one’s moral and emotional boundaries. When most normal aspects of human life are forbidden, as they were during Ceausescu’s repressive regime, one is forced to take drastic—and often illegal—measures, which are often the domain of the most unscrupulous and usurious people on earth: of sociopaths like Domnu Bebe.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has skilled and stunning cinematography appropriate to the subject and period it depicts; historical accuracy; realistic and moving characterizations; wonderful acting and above all great directing. If this is not real entertainment—from which viewers will also learn something about history and about human nature—then I don’t know what is! Before Hollywood embarks on yet another predictable romantic comedy or cartoonish action movie, I think it should take a few notes from Cannes.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon