After reading so many raves I was a little apprehensive about watching it, thinking whether it would live up to all the hype and inflated expectations. After having watched it today I can only say it really deserved all the awards and acclaim all around. It really is a masterwork - riveting throughout and leaving one with deeply unsettling thoughts as the credit rolls in the end.
The film is set in Bucharest of 1987 when Romania was still a few years away from overthrowing the regime of communist dictator Nicolai Ceausescu. When it starts we see two young college girls named Otilia and Gabita preparing for something. Only later do we learn that Gabita is pregnant and that her friend is helping her get a backstreet abortion since it is illegal in the country. Through a common friend they manage to find a creepy looking man, impossibly named Mr. Bebe (it might be a real Romanian name but it adds to the extra creepiness in English), who agrees to risk prison sentence (that's what the law was under the Ceausescu regime) in return of money and when money falls short he demands something more terrible.
Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu it is also set on a single day with events unfolding in almost real time. We don't get character expositions or lengthy flashbacks. For example we never learn about Gabita's boyfriend or the reasons why she had to delay it for so long. Like any film with enough integrity and intelligence it trusts its audiences to make their own conclusions, while giving a few hints here and there. Like in one scene when Otilia herself finds out that her own boyfriend is reluctant to even talk about these messy things in their relationship. She knows (and through her we also get to know) that when she gets into trouble she will be on her own. This is also one of her motivations for going to such extreme lengths to help her friend too. If she is in trouble it will be Gabita's turn to sacrifice for her.
The film (wisely I think) doesn't get into the abortion debate - No technical discussions about the inalienable rights of live foetus or sentimental homilies on motherhood and nurturing life. The fact of abortion is already a given, it is more about how to negotiate and find one's way through bureaucratic insensitivity and in a society without trust, compassion or moral responsibility. It also doesn't explicitly points its finger at the authoritarian regime but it doesn't take too much to understand where all the corruption and darkness of ordinary life stems from. It is somewhat similar to the German film The Lives of Others in this respect, only here the grimness is not relieved by a cathartic burst of humanism in the end. If at all one wants an ideological label, I think the only label that can fit it is the feminist label. May be it is an extreme reaction from my side, but it really brings one face to face with the horror of what it really means to live inside a woman's body and as a consequence how monstrous it is to deny women the rights over their own bodies.
This is reportedly the first in a series of films titled "Tales from the Golden Age" (rather heavy-handed in irony I think) that the director Cristian Mungiu plans to make. I can only say more power to him. During the cold war there was so much talk about censorship and restrictions on artistic expression but bringing down Iron curtain didn't really result in unleashing of great artistic talent from these countries as was expected. Or perhaps the more likely reason is that these countries are now no longer on the radar as they were before the Berlin Wall came down. I hope this recent spate of Romanian films redresses the situation to some extent. May be we get to see good stuff by young directors from Poland, Hungary and Czech republic too. Meanwhile hoping it is available on DVD soon and widely so that more people can see it.
More reviews from the rotten tomatoes and a trailer here.