Friday, June 20, 2008

Cinema And Romania's Grim Past

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days speaks volumes of history

Chris Knight, National Post Published: Friday, June 20, 2008

It should have been a time of shared national pride. Beating out No Country for Old Men, among others, the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days became the first from that country to win the Palme d'Or -- the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival -- in 2007, just five months after the former Eastern bloc country was admitted into the European Union.

But back home, there was almost nowhere to see it. The nation of 22 million is home to fewer than 50 theatres and has the lowest per capita moviegoing rate of any EU member. (Canada has more than 50 drive-in theatres, and some 3,000 screens.)

Thinking on its feet, the distributor organized a 15-city, 30-day tour of the film, showing it in open-air venues, cultural centres or wherever a big enough wall could be found to serve as a screen. A film crew accompanied the caravan, and the result is a fascinating, 15-minute documentary included on the DVD release this week of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. It's not Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show, but it's a welcome bit of levity for a film whose subject is an illegal abortion during the bleakest years of Romania under Communist rule.

Projectionists were imported from Germany; no domestic movie market means no local sprocket wranglers. One of them compares portable 35mm systems to bread-baking, a very old technology that still works and is inexpensive, to boot. In one theatre, they come upon an ancient projector called the T7, built like a tank. "Classic!" one of the Germans crows. "Soviet?" No, the machine's owner corrects him:

"Romanian." It's so grimy that the film has to be cleaned between each showing, for fear that dirt will destroy the print. The tour ends with more than 17,000 people coming out to see the film. Some of them have not been to the movies since The Last Emperor in 1987 -- coincidentally the year in which this film is set.

4 Months is not an easy movie to watch. In Cannes, it earned the sobriquet "The Romanian abortion movie," and even the viewers interviewed for the DVD's documentary provide such comments as "disturbing," "the word 'shocking' is too weak" and "this is not a pleasing movie."

It is, however, a superb piece of filmmaking. It follows two young women, one of them pregnant and as far along as the title, as they seek out an illegal abortionist, rent a hotel room and perform the deed.

Oddly, the not-pregnant one seems more concerned, and does most of the legwork. She also has to attend a birthday party at her boyfriend's parents' house, an awkward gathering that skewers the pretensions of middle-class Romanians of the time.

Writer-director Cristian Mungiu was born in 1968 and came of age during the dark years at the end of the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu. In an interview on the DVD, he discusses his artistic choices, how the film's simple, realistic look was the result of much trial and error. In the complex birthday-party scene, for instance, he realized early on that by blocking it with the actors seated around three sides of a table, he had unconsciously created a parody of Da Vinci's Last Supper. Putting the camera into the centre of the gathering helped capture the chaos of the scene, although the long takes and overlapping dialogue meant it took five days to get it right.

Mungiu avoided music and excessive editing since he felt these would serve as emotional signposts, and he wanted audiences to draw solely on the characters' emotional plight. He even kept his cameraman from raising the lens to follow a character who stands up at the table, the better to preserve the naturalistic feel.

Viewers will notice that the movie begins and ends in mid-conversation, and includes props and plots (a knife, a lost identity card) that go nowhere. This was intentional, Mungiu says. Since the action takes place over a single day, it must include "things that happen but are not accomplished in that very day."

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