I struggled to find a good seat in the unexpectedly packed theater at the Galaxy cinema complex. The film being screened was Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Palm d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days.
The audience turn-up was the largest I’ve seen for a non-Egyptian film at this year’s Cairo International Film Festival. Quite impressive for a film with a budget less than $1 million, distinguished for its slow pace and long static camera shots.
In fact, “4 Months is a quintessential art film that lacks common commercial ingredients, so how it managed to attract flocks of filmgoers remains inexplicable. Still, the unanimous cheerful reception that met the film in Cannes and the European Film Awards – where it earned the prizes for Best European Film and Best Direction last Sunday – is a testament to its vigor.
The film takes place in 24 hours during the waning days of communism in a small Romanian town. Two college students, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu), seem to be having an ordinary day in the dorms. However, the solemn, apprehensive look on their faces reflects a secret hidden behind their ostensibly ordinary actions.
Soon, and with little information, the mystery is divulged. Gabriela is pregnant and she’s having an illegal abortion. Otilia, her friend and roommate, is arranging everything and taking all necessary precautions to prevent them from getting caught.
But their plans don’t go as smoothly as they d hoped: unconfirmed hotel reservation, a shortage of money and Gabriela’s overall imprudent demeanor opens the gates of hell on the two young ladies.
“4 Months is a thriller that defies every rule of the genre. The slow pace, lingering shots on the lead characters’ faces and the occasional torturous silence set a mood of nail-biting tension that lingers long after the film ends.
The fear, despair and palpable corruption lurking in every corner of Ceaucescu-era Romania is chillingly captured through Mungiu’s unflinching lens.
Colors are muted and Mungiu’s exterior shots depict a falling, desolate dystopia. Soap, powdered milk and Kent cigarettes are sold on the black market by vendors who loiter wherever their products are demanded.
In the span of those excruciating 24 hours, Otilia guides the audience through her lifeless world. Her uncertainty extends to her relationship with her boyfriend. As Gabriella’s tribulations reach their peak, Otilia is obliged to attend a birthday dinner for her boyfriend’s mother.
In perhaps the most memorable and emotionally-draining scene of the film, Otilia sits through dinner with her boyfriend’s family and acquaintances. She receives their criticism and condescending remarks silently while contemplating the fate of her friend and struggling through a horrifying experience of her own.
Casual viewers might get the impression that nothing much happens in this film. However, the flood of emotions, dozens of details and multitude of unspoken political, social and philosophical commentaries overflow from Mungiu’s still frames.
Mungiu’s wide frames are usually set outside the action zone, allowing the viewers’ imagination to wander into the realms of nightmares.
All performances, including Vlad Ivanov’s calm monstrous abortionist Bebe, are terrifyingly realistic. Marinca, who carries the film on her young shoulders, gives what can easily be hailed the best female performance of the year.
Otilia’s stubbornness and intense vulnerability can be seen through her eyes and torn facial expressions. It is yet another exhibit that articulated emotions is the most difficult of feats for an actor to accomplish.
“4 Months, which’s often been compared to Mike Leigh’s abortion drama “Vera Drake, is not a pro-choice horror record, nor is it a mere document about the repressive communist world Romania was part of. It’s a film about friendship, the sacrifices citizens of an autocratic society are forced to make, and the alienation of young people in a hypocritical, disintegrating country.
Mungiu refuses to judge his characters or submit to a rigid moral code. His film is what it is. The lasting impression left after the film ends is that of a strong blow on the head, taking the audience from the gripping celluloid badlands into real life.