The awarding of the Palme D’Or at Cannes has become increasingly politicized in recent years; most significantly perhaps with Michael Moore’s victory in 2004 for the highly undeserving Fahrenheit 9/11, and a maybe a little more subtly in 2006 when Ken Loach won for The Wind That Shakes the Barley, there is the impression that the prize award is not so much for technical brilliance as it is for artistic and political intent. So when the 2007 Golden Palm was awarded to this Romanian drama with its thinly-veiled attack on anti-abortionism, critics were quick to declare that this was once again a deliberately political decision by the Cannes jury.
The film has certainly proved controversial; the Vatican of course denounced it, and screenings in countries where there is partial or complete prohibition of abortion have been limited, understandably given the polemical nature of the work. But this censure and censorship only goes to demonstrate just how powerful a work this is, and how effectively it communicates its central message: that the consequence of making the procedure illegal is to drive it underground, where it becomes clandestine, messy, unsanitary and most certainly dangerous.
The woman at the centre of the film is not the pregnant Găbiţa, but her roommate at college Otilia, who is helping her friend procure the termination. The film follows her on the day of the abortion, starting with their mundane early-morning preparations in their dorm. From early on, there is a clear sense of a time and a place; we are clearly still in the midst of the Communist Ceauşescu regime, as evidenced by the ever-present rationing, queueing for essentials and heightened security in public places. But the film offers no critique of this regime, this is merely the setting, and in a sense this could be anywhere, as long as that anywhere was somewhere with the laws that are about to be broken. As much as the film does not critique the Communist regime, neither does it seek to glamourise or romanticise about it, a trap that some recent films, most notably The Lives of Others, partially falls into.
The content of the film is unflinching, but never feels like exploitation, suggestive but not overly graphic. Director Mungiu seems to intuitively know what needs to be shown, and to show no more than this. The abortionist carries a case with him, alluding to a ‘probe’ in his description of the procedure; he eventually leaves the scene and Otilia, like us, has a morbid curiousity as to what the instruments he is about to use look like, and so quickly rummages through his case. In a scene highly reminiscent of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, we see quick glimpses of these cold metal objects, and we have already seen enough. Indeed, it is during the extended ‘bartering’ scene where the real horror of the situation emerges.
The filming style is mostly handheld, giving a cinéma-vérité feel similar to that employed by those other Palme D’Or winners the Dardenne Brothers, and lending a gritty feel to proceedings, particularly effective in one scene towards the end where Otilia must locate a high-rise apartment block, for reasons which will become all-too-clear on viewing the film. The cinematography is desaturated, with greens and sickly blue-greys dominating a dark colour palette, adding to the air of queasiness that no-doubt in stirred by proceedings.
But the film is not about mise-en-scene; as I mentioned before, while this is clearly set in a time and a place, late 1980s Romania, this is almost an irrelevance to the storyline. What is key is the choice facing the characters; we are never told how Găbiţa has become pregnant, but we don’t need to be told this – the fear in actress Laura Vasiliu’s eyes when she is talking to the abortionist is enough to tell us all we need to know. It is actually left to her friend Otilia, scolding her boyfriend’s somewhat uncaring attitude to the situation, to raise the issue of what would happen if she were to fall pregnant, for the audience to consider the alternative to abortion. Găbiţa’s silence on the subject speaks louder than words.
The two central female performances are both extraordinary, but in different ways; while Laura Vasiliu’s Găbiţa is so completely fearful of what is about to happen, there is a steely resolve in Anamaria Marinca’s Otilia trhoughout, even though at times we can sense the same level of fear. Contrast that with a scene where she must temporarily leave her friend to go to a dinner party across town; at that party, older people laugh and joke and discuss recipies, but all the time Otilia is silent, wishing to be elsewhere, and still unable fully to comprehend what has happened, and fearful what is yet to come.
Much is beginning to be made about the so-called ‘New Romanian Cinema’, with Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ winning the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, and critical acclaim enjoyed by the likes of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 East of Bucharest showing the beginnings of a high quality of output from that part of the world. But as with all of these patterns, we must not forget that these films stand alone as great pieces of work, and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days may well prove to be the best of the lot.