A Brutal Metaphor

January 14th, 2009 § 0 comments

What I actually know about communism, or specifically what I know about life under a communist dictator, is admittedly very little. Observing the residue of a country submitted to these circumstances while briefly visiting my in laws in Tirana, Albania, is about all I can boast of when it comes to “personal” knowledge. From an undeniably American stand point, the fascinating aspects of Albanian life are the daily conditions under which culture bends and life goes on. Tirana is an old city camouflaged by recent decades of chaos, and while life under Enver Hoxha might have been oppressive, the roads were paved and the cities infrastructure remained intact. Visiting involved walking in densely dirty streets, past stray cats and deteriorating industrial appliances, through peaceful yards and into snug, comfortable, and friendly apartments. Our American fear of poverty often excludes the fundamental fact that “things” do not necessarily grant the gift of quality, especially where the “quality” of life is concerned. Carefully dressed for a night out, wandering the violated and rocky streets toward the city center, I was surprised to find the city awake, vibrant, and seemingly carefree. In most ways the people seem to make do, and are even proud of, the history of events that befell their country.

It is a setting similar to this that acts as the background for the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 days (2007). The opening exterior image, followed by the date, 1987, shows a gray and white winter in Romania two years before the Romanian Revolution, while still under Ceauşescu’s regime. Cristian Mungiu’s latest film is simple, beautiful, and precisely filmed; one shot per scene. There is no soundtrack, and because nothing about the film contradicts the location or the time it seeks to describe, it does so with unusual precision. Black markets, hotels, parking structures, dormitories, stairways, clunking cars, buses, anonymous people, students, and countless cigarettes portray the everyday surroundings of Mungiu’s leading woman. These objects and places are so mundane they build a curious narrative around how a few students lifestyle is created from such incongruous things.

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Thematically the film appears to be about an abortion, but more than not being political, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 days is not really about abortion at all. Instead, it is a brooding exploration of Romania’s youth coming of age in this era. “The middle-aged folk that we encounter seem to have made their accommodation with [life’s] rigors. It is the young who seem prematurely sapped.” The film uniquely uses abortion as a metaphor for life, life under communism, and life in Romania in the late 1980’s. Though the acting is as straightforward and compelling as the filming, it is this twist that releases the film from the boundary of the overdone drama of hardship.

“…In 1966, the Ceauşescu regime banned all abortion…to increase the very low birth rate and fertility…mothers of at least five children were entitled to significant benefits, while mothers of at least ten children were declared heroine mothers by the Romanian State; few women ever sought this status…”

Abortion, no matter how you feel about it “morally”, is quite literally an example of the consequences of life; it inadvertently talks about love, lust, sex, relationships, violence, murder, freedoms, and choice. Where at any moment the film could dwell in the gory details of a horribly painful and illegal arrangement, it does not. Instead it captures the frightened, compromising, and determined emotions the characters feel toward their society and its rules—they accept what they must and disregard what they can. It is not the situation that makes them behave as weak, bold, or despicable, but the society that has bred, raised, and nurtured them. As Anthony Lane states in his review, “the film stops short of the worst, by an inch—or, rather, it becomes a concise survey of how to deal with the worst.”

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In a closing scene the heroine, Otilia, is followed by a stranger while disposing of her roommate’s dead fetus. We listen to the sound of her shoes in the snow, the heavy intake of her breath, and imagine a disastrous ending. Will she be caught? Will her friend die from complications? Is she, as the film suggests, now pregnant too? Who will help her as she helped her helpless friend? Is this man the abortion doctor back for more “payment”? Otilia, with a backward glance at her stalker, stops at a bus station, looking up and down the street. We look, seeing no bus and no escape. In that moment she turns around and asks the supposed stalker what time the next bus will stop; he answers and she leaves. We sigh. It was a lovely moment, one when our imagined evils fade into the face of another cold and tired person waiting, like Otilia, for the bus. This perspective, this small sliver of optimism holding out against a world where abortion doctors rape before they perform their life-threatening services, is all these students have to hope for, and what makes the film so interesting and surprising.

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