Friday, February 27, 2009

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Dir. Cristian Mungiu

As I was watching Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days I had a strange thought. I say strange because while the film's central premise is illegal abortion the thought that came to me was about modernity. Modernity is the great rupture of beauty. It is the corrosion of the natural in favor of the grotesque. Where the Romans and Greeks ecstatically sought the perfection of aesthetics, we can only feel stifled by it. Something truly miraculous happened well before the 20th century and although no one has ever seemed to completely define what it was, we are hard pressed to outlive it. If I had to guess as to why this thought came in connection with watching 4 Months, it's probably because abortion and all the degradation, politics and catharsis that comes with it feels like a pinnacle of modernity: the destruction of life. It is the utterly devastating realization that there are far too many reasons not to bring a life into the world, both private and public. Unlike the slew of birth comedies that have come out in the past few years (Knocked Up, Juno, etc.) which utilized bias and irrationality (“It has finger nails”) to justify the trauma of giving birth under less than ideal, or simply unthinkable circumstances, 4 Months takes a provocative and deeply controversial issue, puts into a foreign but even more upsetting environment (1980s Romania) and comes out refreshing and brilliant. If one fails to see the film as a tribute to the aching pains of modern life, the effect of the film would seem paradoxical. However, in opposing conventions and making a film that is stirring and aggressively human, Mungiu manages to make a film that is not about abortion at all but rather about life.

Abortion is such a heated issue that I always figured that a film about it would be a totally transparent political film with super-imposed morality. 4 Months begins in the most auspicious and promiscuous of institutions: college. We are introduced to our principle characters who come to represent a sort of cerebral dichotomy. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is a gruffly independent country girl who becomes an obscure mother figure to Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) after Gabita becomes pregnant and decides she wants to get an abortion which is illegal in their home country of Romania. Otilia is well versed in bribery, bartering and lying. However, for her, it must be premeditated. She has to know what she is getting herself into. Gabita lies out of an instinctual and naïve desire to protect and shelter herself and others, but ends up failing because of her inability to tolerate the contradiction inherent in lying (going against morality) to save (going with morality). The two eventually meet an illegal surgeon who, after giving them a hard time about money and breaking his rigid guidelines, performs the operation. It is here that the film tenses up, as if all its muscles contracted. There is a touching fragility between Gabita and Otilia, the kind that only comes from a relationship where one person is in a state of total helplessness and the other a position to criticize and condescend. The film's completely digetic soundtrack adds a painful clarity to the strained relationship between the two girls. Documentary style long takes, reminiscent of Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien and Children of Men capture the intimacy of disdain and repentance. The moments in which nothing is said are some of the hardest to bear, especially a long sequence directly after Mr. Bebe, the surgeon, has implanted the abortive probe and left. Gabita lays barely covered on the bed, with a deeply distressed yet almost slightly relieved look on her face. After several moments of silence she whispers “Thanks” to Otilia. It is truly one of the most obliterating moments in the entire film. Sadness is rarely so eloquent as this.

The rest of the film is mostly nomadic, with a literal take on the twists and turns of the mind as it decides what to do in the wake of an event that is nearly impossible to grasp in its entirety. It's perhaps more nerve racking and less contemplative than it should have been, but chalk that up to the assumption that the audience probably needed a breather after a brutally long take of the unborn fetus lying on the bathroom floor of a cheap hotel. Nothing about the film's vision of humanity is glorious or inspiring. The girls are deeply affected but the end of the film finds them agreeing to never talk about what happened. The focus in 4 Months is on the great burden of life not only in places like Romania but here at home as well. Not to suggest that life was any easier centuries or millenia ago, but since having lost a fair amount of necessity and gained a heaping portion of luxury and distraction, humanity has also been charged with justifying itself. It is not a responsibility we take to happily. To truly understand humanity one must not be afraid of even the most deplorable acts, and must be ready to have any and all convictions torn down and replaced by insecurity and contempt. We cannot find who we are simply by looking on the bright, satisfying side of things. Truer still, we will not discover anything by probing the depths of despair either. Modernity is the accepting of the horrible and ugly as relatives to the beautiful and the perfect. It is the realization that death can bring a truly greater understanding of and appreciate for life. 4 Months succeeds exactly where it should: in de-politicizing and thus de-dichotomizing the heated and relentless issue of living.

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