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ONCE UPON A TIME IN ROMANIA
Romanian director Cristian Mungiu discusses his Cannes prize-winning tale about illegal abortion in the final days of the Ceausescu regime, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

BY DAMON SMITH

ANAMARIA MARINCA IN 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS. PHOTO BY: MOBRA FILMS/ADI PADURETU

Accepting the Palme d‘Or at Cannes last May for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, writer-director Cristian Mungiu expressed his hope that the distinction would encourage “small filmmakers from small countries.” Mungiu, 39, hails from Romania, a once-benighted Communist-bloc nation whose newly thriving cinema culture has in recent years emitted a burst of critically acclaimed but little-seen films, including Cristi Puiu‘s black-comic health-care farce The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Corneliu Porumboiu‘s equally mordant 12:08 East of Bucharest, both of which received U.S. distribution deals after winning top prizes at Cannes. However with the backing of IFC First Take, heaps of buzz and a harrowing storyline likely to resonate far beyond festival screening rooms, 4 Months seems destined to reach a much wider audience than those films managed to find.

Set in 1987, two years before the violent overthrow of totalitarian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the film depicts 24 hours in the life of a university student, Otilia (Sex Traffic‘s Anamaria Marinca), who‘s trying to arrange an illegal abortion for her roommate, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). Left to handle all the seemingly mundane details for her frail, distressed friend, from procuring funds and haggling for black-market items to booking a hotel room without rousing suspicion (not an easy task), Otilia must later appease the abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), who becomes increasingly hostile over their inability to pay his asking price. The title, of course, refers to the term of Gabita‘s pregnancy, but it could just as easily describe the length of time Otilia feels passing as she endures an unpleasant dinner with her boyfriend‘s family at a crucial turning point in the day.

Alternating long, static takes with frenetic, handheld-style mobile camerawork, Mungiu and d.p. Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) keep the atmosphere tense and anxious, tracking Otilia‘s resolve to navigate a variety of ordeals. The location shots are not only period specific, but a grim reminder of urban stagnation under Ceausescu‘s draconian, belt-tightening economic “reforms.” As a picture of everyday life under authoritarian rule, the picture is stark; as a testament to solidarity, it is heroically devastating, with Marinca supplying the film‘s relentless sense of urgency in a gutsy do-or-die performance.

Humble and soft-spoken, Mungiu has a round, boyish face which belies both his age and intelligence, as well as the range of his accomplishments. Prior to completing a four-year program in directing at the University of Theatre and Film in Bucharest, he worked as a print journalist and radio correspondent and earned a degree in English literature from the University of Iasi, his hometown. In 2003, the year after his debut feature Occident premiered at the Directors‘ Fortnight at Cannes, he founded the production company Mobra Films. IFC First Take opens the film January 25.

CRISTIAN MUNGIU‘S 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS. PHOTO BY: MOBRA FILMS/ADI PADURETU

This screenplay first originated as an anecdote you heard, is that right? The story itself is something I was told 15 years ago by this girl who is very close to me. So it was a personal story, and I never thought to make a film about it. Like the characters at the end of the film, I was trying to pretend like it never happened. But last year, I was looking for a relevant story about my generation. I was traveling a lot to festivals for my first film [Occident], and I got to talk to lots of people my age. I belong to kind of a special generation in Romania: I was born in 1968, and so I am a direct consequence of the abortion ban in Romania, which generated a baby boom. Later, I discovered there‘s a sense of solidarity among these people, and I sensed a desire to see a story about [this generation] at some point.

Otilia and Gabita are both well-drawn female characters in crisis. How did you manage to work your way into their mindset so sensitively as a writer? It wasn‘t difficult for me to relate with what I was told. When I write, I‘m not male or female. I think about character and what their motivation is. Plus, I don‘t think this is a feminine subject. So it wasn‘t difficult for me to tell this story from the perspective of these girls. People aren‘t necessarily very rational when they make decisions. They just decide. And this is how life goes. You don‘t have time to rationalize and think why you decided to do something. This belongs to structuring, to fiction, to narration, to another kind of process. And I was trying to preserve this in the film — to follow what was the most likely thing to happen in that situation.

On a more thematic level, the film also deals with the dynamics of human solidarity as well as exploitation. Is this a theme that interests you, or was that simply the context for the story you wanted to tell? I try not to start with a theme or a message, because then it is just going to be a demonstration, and I think it‘s not good for the film. I try to do something else: I try to pick a relevant situation that I think will have enough layers to talk about many [issues]. If you respect reality the way you‘ve seen it, it‘s going to have all the complexity of real life. For some people, the film talks about freedom, and for other people, about solidarity and friendship and social class under communism; and obviously, about abortion. For me, it speaks about responsibilities and decision-making and about growing up. But you don‘t start [with this in mind]. I start with the story — it‘s true and I can be honest. It‘s going to have a complex meaning without me placing it there.

In the film, we never see any of the hallmark signs of a repressive regime, like the army or police. Ceausescu‘s name is never once mentioned. However, the atmosphere in which Otilia and Gabita act is very restricted, very repressive. This was the unbearable part of [living under Communism]. And the difficult part of making a period piece now was to render this thing that was very imprecise. It was a general pressure. People were not happy — they weren‘t arrested and nothing specifically was happening to them, but still it was very difficult. And I thought it was much more important to render this general atmosphere than to show tanks or policemen — that kind of Good Bye, Lenin! feeling.

There are little moments of tension and menace scattered throughout the film, and they don‘t always get resolved. One moment that comes to mind, for instance, is when Otilia is rifling through Mr. Bebe‘s briefcase and finds a switchblade. I like to keep this [tension] in the film, to allow some things to be contained in the mind of the spectators. I opened 4 Weeks in the middle of a conversation — which is essential for me, though I don‘t show it — and I stop the film in the middle of a gesture. And this is why people come [into the frame] from off-camera; there‘s a world behind and above. And I hope that spectators are going to fill it up with their own thoughts and feelings.

How did you work with your production designer in order to return us to that prerevolutionary period? Because of my small budget, I had to improvise and make Bucharest look like a small town. For example, the city is completely spoiled for a period piece — not because we have 17-story buildings, but because the old communist buildings have gotten new metallic windows and air conditioning and satellite dishes. They don‘t look modern and they don‘t look old. I could only find one wood hotel in Bucharest. I asked my production designer [Mihaela Poenaru] to do a lot. She‘s my age, so she remembers things. For instance, I asked her to make a lot of interventions on the real spaces we got. Also, it was a bit difficult for us to shoot exteriors — you have to remove the cars, and this is very, very difficult. If you watch the film carefully, there are a lot of cars that are just covered. There‘s a shot in the scene where Otilia is coming to meet Mr. Bebe, and there‘s a huge truck crossing in front of the camera, without any real purpose. It was my truck that would wet the streets for me, and it was my only possibility to avoid showing this huge advertising [billboard].

How did you choose your actors, and how did you prepare them for the film‘s frequent use of very long takes? I told them from an early stage that I planned to shoot long takes and that I needed to work with people who would be capable of remembering pages and pages of dialogue and still relate to the scene and be focused. This is how I chose Vlad Ivanov, who does the most difficult part in the film, that negotiation scene in the hotel — it‘s a 25-minute scene [that we shot] in just three days. He was very focused and capable of rendering all the small details that we decided on before the take. Most often, we weren‘t able to get the scene right in the first take. We were scheduled to shoot one shot a day, and most of the time, we got it right the next morning. The best thing that happened because of this way of working is that the actors had time to develop in motion, in front of the camera. I never stopped them, not even if the take wasn‘t necessarily starting very well, because it was hard enough for the next one. And I worked a lot with the girls [Marinca and Vasiliu]. It was easy for me to work with them because they relate to the way I work, which is acting all the parts in the film with them. I do this because I need to see in the rehearsal the reaction that I need in the film.

Did you have a lot of prep time? I started very late, in October 2006. I decided to get a film ready for Cannes in May, not having any money, not having anything. I only had time to rehearse the hotel scene before the shooting. I knew that if that scene works, the film is going to be [good]. And in order to ask [the actors] to show emotion, I tried to develop emotion myself on the set. What they managed to do, especially this girl playing Gabita, she used her own inhibitions and emotions that she felt as an actress — being naked and embarrassed on the set — for the benefit of the character, in a very good way. What I liked especially about Anamaria, who plays Otilia, is that she really thought about things the character would think. She doesn‘t fake this. And I think you can see it in the film, that her thoughts are the right thoughts.

How closely did you and your cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, work on developing the visual style of the film? We decided to have a camera that would follow the inner state of mind of the main character, Otilia, as much as possible. So if the situation is static, the camera would be still. Whenever she stands and is anxious or running or climbing stairs or whatever, the camera will follow her. We were trying to have this kind of subjective camera taking the state of mind from her character, and we tried from the beginning to abstain from using formal means that would [make us] noticeable as the authors and filmmakers. This is why we chose not to use music, editing or close-ups. The effort was to find the right position of the camera from where you could watch the situation, knowing that some part of it was going to be off-camera. We hoped to render the feeling that this is just a slice of life, that the story is much greater than what we show.

Can you describe for me your journey from writing and journalism to filmmaking? At age 12 or 14, I thought that I was going to be a writer. But later on, I was watching a lot of very strange and stupid films from the period, and this is how I got some desire to make films. Watching them, you would say, “Who are these people? They look like aliens. They look like us and they seem to be talking like us, but this is not how things happen.”

These are state-sanctioned films you‘re referring to? Some were propaganda films, but the others were just films made by the wrong people. They weren‘t selecting the right people to make films. And it was impossible during that period to study film. I was from a town up north. It was common knowledge that directing jobs in Bucharest were given to people in the system, so it wasn‘t even worth trying. So I studied literature, I became a journalist, and for a period, it was okay for me to work in the press because I had a lot of freedom. I had access to a lot of stories and some of them I placed in the films. It was good practice learning to tell my stories with words, and to structure and shape things in a certain way. Even today, I feel most comfortable when I write, because you don‘t depend on anybody but yourself for the result. Part of my style of storytelling comes from the way I write — I describe what I see.

CINEMOTAGRAPHER OLEG MUTU (LEFT) AND WRITER-DIRECTOR CRISTIAN MUNGIU. PHOTO BY: MOBRA FILMS/ADI PADURETU

And how do you translate that into the visual field, in terms of creating cinematic effects that are different than those of writing? I try to find the equivalent in pictures of what I felt writing. For example, it‘s not difficult to scout [locations] — I know what I‘m looking for, I‘m looking for something familiar to my imagination. And I have this special sense about space — I like showing all the spaces possible. There are some shots in this film that show 360 degrees of a location, which is very peculiar. I was always looking for a way of staging the situation in such a way that you would have the feeling that you are seeing the whole environment. Then there‘s a sense of geometry: I don‘t show corners, I don‘t shoot angles — I just shoot flat [surfaces]. I never use a second shot in the same direction as the first one. They are always perpendicular to one another. I think this kind of geometry of the set and of the shooting gives a structure; it gives a force, hopefully.

There are now a group of young Romanian filmmakers who have achieved prominence on the international festival circuit. Do you think you share a sensibility with your peers and perhaps even a technique? I don‘t think so. I think we‘re perceived as a generation or a new wave because we got recognition pretty much at the same time, and we belong to the same age group. But if you watch the films, there are major differences in the way we see and consider cinema. There are things which are common, but not in all the films. And probably this reaction to the cinema of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s generated a feeling of getting back to reality and presenting things as they are — not in this metaphorical, intricate kind of way in which these other people were making their films. Apart from this, we are quite diverse. If we were to write an aesthetic document, it would be difficult.

What happened after 1989 and the fall of Ceausescu to change the scene for filmmaking in Romania? At the beginning, there was big confusion, at all levels of society. People didn‘t really know how to use their freedom. It was a strange period in terms of rearranging the system of financing, passing from a state-based rule system to a new one, and this lasted 17 years. The year 2000 was the zero year of the industry in Romania. No film was produced. Then, little by little, this started to work a bit — not very well, but enough to give a chance to more and more people every year to make their debut film. Eventually, in 2005, I think it was possible to produce just one debut film, then two and then four, and now it‘s possible to make eight or 10. Then some really talented people emerged, and they managed to bring more sources of financing. We got involved as soon as we got the first results as filmmakers in Cannes. We got involved in reshaping the system, rewriting the cinema law. We made an organization of filmmakers that would defend our rights. The system is not working perfectly, but it has improved.

Is it difficult now to secure funding? There‘s a screenplay competition every year. What‘s difficult is to create a good jury that will pick the right films. If you are lucky enough and you get money from the state, then things are simpler. But it‘s very difficult to elect this jury because you can‘t choose people who are going to compete. And all the people who have this level of competence are going to compete. Apart from this, once I was lucky enough to get this kind of money, and because I got involved in rewriting this law, it wasn‘t difficult for me to put together the money that I needed in a period of three months‘ time, with only local funding. I was making some phone calls, and I realized immediately that I wouldn‘t have time to wait for answers from abroad, because they needed six to eight months. I wanted to make the film immediately. I knew the system, I knew where to appeal for some extra money and I built up the smallest budget possible for this film to be made. It was a quick way of making it.



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