Saturday, January 26, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days


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.

10 comments:

puccinio said...

I liked this movie too. Though I think it's too early to call it a masterpiece.

But I do feel that the Romanian directors haven't probed deep into the problems that the country went through in maintaining communism especially with the bosses like the Soviets. The thing is if they keep making movies showing how oppressive the communuists without showing the reasons for that failure then they basically are playing into the hands of the Reaganite doctrine of Communism being inherently an "ideology of evil".

Bela Tarr's movies have shown the failures of communism without going at sterotypes and showing that things aren't necessarily better. It's just that a deeper analytical mind is needed.

Szerelem said...

I really, really want to watch this movie buhave no idea if it will ever come to a theatre near me...

Usually Oscar noms help in securing a wider release atleast but then the idiots didnt even nominate it...

Alok said...

szerelem: yeah, it was really surprising they didn't nominate it. I hope it was some technical issue rather than just "philistines at the academy" as the nyt review said. I doubt if it will ever get a wide release, but it should be available on DVD.

Alok said...

puccinio: I think the film is more about authoritarian and heavily regulated, centralized and controlled societies in general... communism is just one specific type. It shows the breakdown of trust and community and how even the most ordinary looking things of daily life need to be negotiated and the moral and emotional toll such transactions can take.

The capitalism that followed the end of communism in these eastern european countries is really just another state sponsored ideology. True Democracy is still a distant pipe dream. People like "Irimias" in Tarr's Satantango can belong to any ideology - capitalism, communism or they may even be just old fashioned religious prophets offering salvation. They all talk in the same language with the same vocabulary.

films like these show how important it is to live in a community which is based on trust and how authoritarian legal and social institutions can stunt moral feelings.

Also I am not really well informed on the subject but Ceasescu was considered a maverick in the east-bloc. He had pretty good relations with the Americans. Moscow probably didn't care as much for Romania as it did for Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia.

Madhuri said...

I think Puccinio is right - the movie is intended to show the plight of people because of the Communist rule in particular rather than an authoritative society. And the secrecy and fear/horror depicted in the movie could be equally real today - even in other societies. In our democratic country, how many girls can openly consider abortion or admit to having had one?
I am not making a point - except that it is not an authoritarian society alone that could be plagued with such lack of trust as you put it.

Alok said...

Our case is not much different. Only this time it is the the blind acceptance of traditions and outmoded mentalities to blame. It is much subtler than openly and politically authoritarian societies and as a result much worse. These two women in this film at least have agency, they know what is to be done and are willing to go to extremes...

One of my favourite scenes in the film and the one which made me really think was when Otilia talks to her boyfriend who just shrugs off his shoulders when she says she might be pregnant too. I think it is true for many so-called "liberated" couples in "free" societies too - there is a hidden assumption that these messy aspects of sexual relationships are purely for a a woman to take care of.

Roxana Ghita said...

"The Golden Age" may look like heavy-handed irony, but in a way it is also quite denotative, at least for Romanians, because this is how the regime used to call the "Ceausescu era". You could hear this every day in the news or read in the newspapers: "Under the glorious leadership of people's most beloved Son, Nicolae Ceausescu, and his life and combat comrade, Elena Ceausescu, our Motherland has entered the Golden Age of Communism".

I didn't quite get what puccinio implied when he said that directors only show how oppressive the system was without indicating the reasons for "that failure" - do you mean the failure of the communist system? I think it is pretty obvious why it could do nothing but fail and it is also a good thing that movies tend to concentrate on everyday life details. This way, everybody can get a glimpse of how life really is under such a regime. and maybe the neo-marxist dreamers ("communism is actually good; they made a mess of it when they put it into practice, but we can make it better") will hopefully lose their enthusiasm a little. But then again, the appeal of this utopia is such that nothing seems to discourage them, it's always reality which got it wrong, not them. And what kind of stereotypes do you see in this movie? (although I agree, many other Romanian movies about communism fall into this category).

Why does Mr. Bebe sound so creepy in English? I haven't thought of it earlier. Actually it is quite interesting, Bebe is a hypocoristic (paradoxically, it is related to "Alexandru", I've never understood why). So of course the choice of this name is very ironical, as it is mainly used by friends in very familiar situations . The "Mr." in front of it makes it both funny, and pompously-derisory ("Mr. Bebe" would definitely match a pimps profile). But there is something else: bebe, as a common noun, means "baby", which sparks additional flashes of sarcasm!

and another question for Alok (amused :-) do you really find it such a horror to live in a woman's body?

Alok said...

Hi Roxana, thanks for the comment!

haha, I thought twice about writing that sentence...probably horror was a strong word, discomfort would have been more appropriate but watching the film and thinking, it really made me feel that way. If I suddenly woke up one day in a woman's body I wouldn't know what to do. Men really have it so easy :)

Anonymous said...

if i woke up in a womans body i'd like to get raped, btw i want to see takashi miike remake this, with the aborted foetus coming to life and going on a rampage.

monster paperbag said...

can't wait to watch this movie :).