Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The opposite of Juno

I like Juno. I don't mind that it lacks heft and has been nominated for Best Picture (a lot of pictures that have won, even the heaviest dramas, are more self-important than deep). Even if it wins I'm not going to join the growing chorus of haters. It does what it wants to do and succeeds.

But it is a fantasy, with a blinkered view that doesn't get far past its hamburger phones and slanguage. The situation it presents is not so easily laughed off in the real world. Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days takes place in Romania in 1987, but its raw material can be rooted anywhere. Just last week I watched on TCM Love With a Proper Stranger (1963), the Juno of its day. Robert Mulligan's followup to To Kill a Mockingbird declines to show Natalie Wood inconveniently pregnant by musician boyfriend Steve McQueen (no cute "baby bump" sequences here) but has a harrowing scene involving a potential back alley abortion that without saying it speaks volumes about life in a pre-choice America. With an increasing likelihood that this country will one day soon be post-choice, Juno's clinic sequence can't help but be agitating even if you enjoy the picture, and the Romanian film takes on greater urgency. In some ways we are a long way from it, but no so far as to treat choice with nonchalance.

Mungiu, part of the Romanian New Wave that has brought the outstanding Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08: East of Bucharest to our shores, has said in interview that the film is not about abortion. But seeking same is the catalyst for a film that gradually uncovers a society inoperable without the black market and glad-handing of various kinds to grease the wheels. I consider myself a fairly liberal person, and would like to see the unfair and too-frequently error-riddled death penalty abolished in this country. (It's not my business what a woman chooses to do regarding pregancy, and it shouldn't be yours, or society's, either, which is how I reconcile the two positions.) But I admit to relishing the execution of the horrifically eccentric Ceausescus, a Christmas gift to the world two years after the events in this Soviet-era film. The most fascistic of the Communist leaders, theirs was a prime example of the metaphor of a fish rotting from the head down, and we find students Gabita (Laura Vasiliu, pictured at left) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, right) somewhere near the tail end as the film opens.

Gabita wants an abortion, in a society where abortion is illegal and motherhood is morbidly prized. Otilia is helping her obtain one, a circumstance complicated by Gabita's emotional and rational retreat as the unblessed event nears in a local hotel. The abortionist, Mr. Bebe (played with scary evenness by Vlad Ivanov), is irked that the young women have broken his clandestine protocols, not least of which is that the room obtained is in a hotel not on his approved list. But he makes due, particularly when the women agree to his steep price, made and exacted matter-of-factly--sexual favors in return for the deed. All of this plays out in long, tense takes, closely observed by the gifted cinematographer of Lazarescu, Oleg Mutu, who keeps the widescreen frame charged throughout. More, and worse, is to come, as Otilia forces herself to attend a dinner at her prospective fiance's, where the other guests mount their high horses about their status in this supposedly classless society. And there is the disposal of the fetus, shown as graphically and as dispassionately as the actual abortion, to consider.

The likelihood of 4 Months breaking out of the arthouse circuit, which is increasingly indifferent to foreign films, is slim, though I wouldn't wabt to jinx it. (Oscar nominators bypassed it in favor of safer fare.) And that is a shame, for the film is terribly relatable. Neither a position paper nor a draggy dirge, the film is driven by its two leads, who are extraordinary--as good as the twosome who animated The Dreamlife of Angels a decade ago. Watching Otilia wear down, but never give up, is inspiring; I suspect you will think of her often (just as the film asks you to consider if the wounded Gabita, is more duplicitous than it seems, and a product of her state in more ways than one). Rather than heap scorn on Juno, which has its place, the corrective is to spend a couple of hours with 4 Nights, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which strips away the glitter from the fairy tale.

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