A tough Romanian abortion story has won this year's Palme d'Or. Nick Roddick hears why the director was never going to end up in monster moviesNick Roddick
Thursday May 31, 2007
GuardianThe film world's collective jaw may have dropped on Sunday night when 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days - a Romanian film about abortion with no stars and costing under half a million pounds - walked off with the Palme d'Or in Cannes. Less surprised, probably, was its director, Cristian Mungiu. He was confident enough of his chances when we met, 10 days before the prize-giving, to tell me that he wasn't going home when his free, festival-provided hotel room ran out: "I'm going to stick around for the awards."
By then, of course, the world's press had seen the film, and the rumour-mill was already at work, identifying it as the discovery of the year. Mungiu knows a thing or two about rumours. He screened a rough cut of the film at the Rotterdam Film festival in February just three days after finishing shooting, and that was when word of mouth got going in earnest. Within days, he had several offers from sales agents.
Given the bleakness of the film's subject matter, it is reassuring to discover that its 39-year-old director, while serious about his art, views the Ceausescu era with a dry sense of humour. "Jokes are what kept our spirits up," he explains. "You were always standing in line waiting for things to happen, and people started telling jokes. Everybody had a joke: it was a way of surviving."
But Romania's history of illegal abortions was no joke. Abortion was banned in Romania in 1966, resulting (as was presumably intended) in an alarming surge in the birth rate. Class sizes increased by a third, and extra classrooms had to be built. "There were seven Cristians in my class," recalls Mungiu. "There were not enough names to go round." Illegal abortions also rose, killing a reported 500,000 women in the last two decades of communism. "In that context, abortion stopped being a moral issue: it was an act of rebellion."
The film is set in 1987, in the last winter but two of the Romanian People's Republic. It is about two young women, Otilia and Gabita, who share a room in a university dorm in a small provincial town. Gabita is pregnant and Otilia puts her considerable energy into arranging an abortion. They meet up with the sinister - and ironically named - Mr Bebe. After some unpleasant haggling, the procedure is carried out.
The film's story is, Mungiu says, taken not just from the period but from the experience of one of his friends. "I'm very close to it. It came from a girl I met in my early 20s, and it had happened to her. I shaped my film directly around her experience."
Given that several recent Romanian films have told stories which look to be as much social history as individual experience, Mungiu counters any suggestion that he is concerned with the bigger picture rather than his characters.
"I was never planning to make a film which would be primarily the chronicle of those times. I didn't want to use all the cliches about late communism. I never mention Ceausescu or communists or party activists."
Back then, he explains, no one knew they were trapped in (after Albania) Europe's second most repressive society, and even less that they were seeing out 'the last days' of the communist era. "We were never aware that we belonged to a strange world." Mungiu insists. "We were just living like normal people under a particular set of circumstances, and that's how I wanted to tell things in the film."
Mungiu trained at the film school in Bucharest, but says he learned most by working as an assistant director on several of the American and western European films that flooded into Romania in the 1990s, attracted by low labour costs and stunning locations. "I worked on a lot of monster films," he says. "But it's a job, and you learn something - much more than at film school."
He wrote the screenplay for the film last summer and only decided he was going to make it in September. By then, it was too late to tap into western Europe's film-funding honeypot, "because the decision process takes too long". Fortunately, he had been involved in redrafting Romania's cinema law the previous year, so knew just where to turn on the home front.
Casting was more difficult. One of the girls, Gabita, is played by relative newcomer Laura Vasiliu and Otilia is played by Anamaria Marinca, one of the stars of the 2004 Channel 4 series Sex Traffic, who now lives in London. It cost him more than he could afford to fly her home for a test, and he was devastated to find that she wasn't at all how he had imagined Otilia. Vocally, however, she was ideal. And, for Mungiu, that's what really counts: vocal realism.
"Sound recordists hate me," he says, "because I think people express their feelings more easily if" - he drops his voice to a whisper - "they talk like this than if they speak loud and clear. I'm not a fan of loud and clear."
Mungiu is now back in Bucharest and is determined to keep working in his native country - and on his own terms. "I had the experience of working on a film for somebody else, on a foreign production," he says. "They were very nice people, but I discovered it is very difficult for me to have somebody else interfere with my film. I wouldn't like to work on anything unless I have complete control."
Having a Palme d'Or on the mantelpiece generally makes that easier to achieve.