Not Just an Abortion Film: An Interview with Cristian Mungiu
by Richard Porton
While most of Eastern Europe's postwar Communist countries were ruled by bland, if frequently corrupt, figureheads, Romania proved a spectacularly ghoulish exception. Soon after becoming head of the party in 1965, Nicolae Ceausescu took additional, aggressively nationalist measures to distance his regime from the Soviet Union (he was christened "President" in a bogus election in 1974) while adhering to a hardline Stalinist economic model—and encouraging an elaborate cult of personality—that might have made Stalin himself envious. One of his most notorious fiats—Decree 770 issued in 1966—outlawed abortion and proceeded to reward mothers of multiple children with medals and lavish praise for their efforts to build a populous socialist bulwark. Unlike campaigns against abortion in the West, Ceausescu's imposition of mandatory motherhood (at least for women under forty-five) had nothing to do with religious or moral doctrines. It was instead aligned to what the Romanian author Norman Manea terms "the state ownership of human beings"—the obliteration of the private realm enforced by an intractable bureaucracy.
Cristian Mungiu's second feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (winner of the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival), breathes life into historical abstractions by delineating the ethical options available to citizens of a police state by fusing a startlingly naturalistic style with the nail-biting tension usually associated with thrillers. Set in a dismal, unnamed provincial city, Mungiu's film demonstrates that, even under totalitarianism, individuals need not be automatons and can defy the iron rule of the state through small, but not insignificant, actions. The banal travails of everyday life in a repressive regime inspire heroic gestures: In one of the most unbalanced friendships in cinematic history, the classically pretty, but astonishingly passive, polytechnic student Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), receives a clandestine abortion with the help of her grittier, more resourceful roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca). Not only do this mismatched pair live in fear of the years in prison that await them if the Romanian security apparatus discovers their crime. They must also endure the horrors of dealing with the odious Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), a back-alley abortionist who forces Otilia and Gabita to assuage his wrath with sexual favors.
The singular brilliance of 4 Months does not reside, however, in its bare bones narrative but in the wealth of accumulated detail harnessed to illuminate Gabita and Otilia's ever-increasing desperation and anxiety. Shot in real time and featuring exquisitely choreographed long takes, Oleg Mutu's consistently inventive cinematography isolates key moments that pinpoint the protagonists' psychological malaise and social unease. At the film's outset, a shot of Gabita and Otilia's dormitory room reveals a fishbowl with only a paltry amount of water—an image that beautifully encapsulates the young women's sense of being inexorably trapped. Ominously flickering lights in the hotel where the abortion is performed plunge viewers into a veritable twilight zone while the hand-held tracking shots that accompany Otilia, as she traverses the bleak streets of her university town in search of help for her remarkably ungrateful friend, create a heavy fog of suspense that is never lifted. Mungiu's naturalism is uncanny for its ability to intimately acquaint viewers with his protagonists' plight while maintaining a cautious distance. The narcissistic Gabita and the indefatigable Otilia (a brilliant performance by Anamaria Marinca), are captured on film with an impassivity that resembles the stare of a peculiarly empathetic surveillance camera.
4 Months is also noteworthy for insights into the seemingly paradoxical phenomenon of class tensions under state socialism. Sharp disparities between the smugness of the professional class (often referred to as the "intelligentsia" in Eastern Europe, a category that traditionally included professionals such as doctors as well as writers and academics) surface in the depiction of a squirm-inducing birthday party thrown for the mother of Otilia's boyfriend. Beside herself with anxiety at a time when she fears that Gabita's life might be in peril, Otilia must endure the snobbish remarks of party guests who patronize her as coming from "simple folk" and make snide comments about her family background. With a nod to a famous sociological study by the Hungarian sociologists George Konrad and Ivan Szelenyi, it's arguable that professionals under Communism deployed a pseudoegalitarian mindset in order to achieve "class power." Mungiu's film invokes this paradox without a smidgen of didacticism. An implied analysis of socialist elites is evident in the subtle details of the film's mordantly farcical birthday party: as most of the population suffers, a privileged few sip champagne and eat crème brûlée.
Cineaste interviewed Mungiu shortly before the U.S. premiere of 4 Months at the New York Film Festival. He was eager to talk about such diverse topics as the relationship of his film to battles over abortion rights in the West, the hype lavished on the so-called "Romanian New Wave," and the psychic damage wrought by Ceausescu's cruel dictatorship.
Cineaste: You've announced that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is part of a cycle entitled "Tales from The Golden Age." Although this title is obviously ironic, could you elaborate on its significance? How do you envision the cycle as a whole?
Cristian Mungiu: I don't know if it's obvious to everyone, but the title comes from a reference to "the golden age of Romania," the last nine years of Ceausescu's regime. This is very ironic for Romanians since it was a period of shortages and hardship. The project, "Tales from the Golden Age," evolved from my initial idea to film shorter stories. I initially wrote about six stories that would each last about thirty minutes inspired by urban legends of the period. I wanted to make a subjective, personal history of the late Communist era in Romania—the way in which real people suffered small misfortunes under a big dictatorship. The tone was rather light and, as soon as it was finished (and we had even started to preproduce it), young people who read the script observed, "This is very funny; it must have been very funny to live during those times." This wasn't my intention and I thought I had a responsibility to avoid this response. Since I never wanted to abandon the project, I decided to make a film with a very different tone. I knew that I wanted a harsher view of this period—and this is how I came up with the current film. But the cycle will continue with two more films that will focus on other aspects of Romanian society during this era. Since the rest of the project is so episodic, I've decided to make it an omnibus film. Various young Romanian directors will direct subsequent episodes.
Cineaste: Did the chronicle of the abortion in the current film come out of research?
Cineaste: So a woman who had grown up during the end of the Ceausescu regime recounted the story to you?
Mungiu:Yes, I based it on a real story but only fictionalized the biographies and added some of the context. I tried to research some details to make sure I wasn't doing something nonsensical. But the basic story always remained the same.
Cineaste: Did the narrative equation always emphasize the passivity of the young woman needing the abortion contrasted with the energetic resourcefulness of her friend and helper?
Mungiu: This wasn't particularly apparent at the beginning of the process; it was something that evolved while I was writing the script. At the beginning I thought I was making a film about two girls. But I eventually discovered that I had only one main character. Because of this, I made some changes and essentially left out all the scenes involving one of the characters since I realized that the protagonist who understands what's going on during this day should be the focus. I thought this was better for the story.
Cineaste: In some respects, the opposition of these characters is a metaphor for opposing options in a totalitarian society: remaining passive vs. the choice to resist.
Mungiu: It demonstrates that, although you might resist without solving anything, at least you had a reaction. It was important for me to show that some people were much more aware than others of what was going on at this time. Most people, though, just act from day to day and don't think about the consequences. I thought it was important to make this film to emphasize that there are still people today in Romania who act without thinking about the consequences. After being forced to have children during the Ceausescu years, there were about a million abortions in Romania after it was made legal—as if people didn't realize that there was another kind of contraception.
Cineaste: You've spoken about the decision to filter most of the narrative through Otilia's perspective. But it also seems important to emphasize how the camera maintains a distance from her narrative and seems to evoke the presence of state surveillance that was obviously a factor at that time.
Mungiu: If you watch the film carefully, you'll notice that, when she walks, for example, we only see her from the back. But I wasn't trying to make this sort of commentary conspicuous. When I was directing actors, I didn't tell them that certain gestures were symbolic or signified something specific. I was trying to keep the actors conscious of their roles but hoped that, when the film was finished, people would understand some aspects of Romanian society from the way the film was made. I hope the film invites discussion of this diffuse sort of oppression, the fear of always being watched and controlled. But I didn't want to make it too explicit.
Cineaste: And, in a similarly subtle way, you emphasize how class distinctions persisted under Communism.
Mungiu: Yes, to my surprise, a Bulgarian told me that he thought this was the best film he'd seen about social classes under Communism; the film speaks about the wide range of options available to those on top. One of my purposes with this film was to demonstrate that, although we were young and thought we weren't affected by propaganda, we were victims of the educational system. This sometimes came out during arguments; when we were angry our arguments sometimes reflected this propaganda. I think this comes out when Otilia is arguing with her boyfriend; she can't speak about her friend's abortion so the other conflicts become apparent. This is very strange since we usually never talked about these matters among ourselves. When this couple becomes aware of their parents' status, it's something that's come out of the propaganda and the educational system. People have heard that intellectuals are very important, even if they're not quite sure why.
Cineaste: It's reminiscent of what Milovan Djilas once wrote about the Yugoslavian "new class."
Mungiu: And this was eventually the class promoting capitalism in the post-Communist era. The former Communists became the engine of the new economy.
Cineaste: Of course, there were some peculiar aspects of Romanian Communism since it was the only Eastern bloc country to ban abortion. The Soviet Union promoted abortions.
Mungiu: And the Soviet Union promoted sex as a way of relieving social pressures. It was completely different in Romania. Even in Poland, despite the influence of the Catholic Church, the policy was different. This was something specifically Romanian. It's difficult to find a good explanation. But, according to my research, the causes stem from Ceausescu's motivations from 1966 on that were partially economic and partially propagandistic.
Cineaste: And tied to Ceausescu's cult of personality?
Mungiu: It was a way of saying that we have to boost the economy: to complete our plans in economics and agriculture we therefore have to increase the population. Important nations are big nations. We need to build the new man, the new socialist man. Because of this reasoning, abortion was forbidden for much of the population. It was only permitted for women over forty-five. You'd get a medal for producing ten children.
Cineaste: This probably explains why Ceausescu's regime was considered as much fascist as Communist.
Mungiu: Yes, and it's important to explain this sort of thing. Because of the situation in Romania where childbearing was imposed on women, they weren't considering the most important aspect of abortion—the fact that it's your personal, moral choice. It's not about you or the system; it's an ethical choice that needs to be made. We never thought about this. We were just trying to get away with not getting caught by the authorities. The fact that we weren't aware of these ethical questions was the most horrible aspect of Communism.
Cineaste: The shot of the fetus (which is held for a considerable length of time) is probably the most controversial moment in the film. I assume you felt this shot was an essential component of the narrative, especially since it's an important element in Otilia's perspective on events.
Mungiu: I thought it was an important part of the story and it would have been an odd formal decision on my part as an author to avoid this shot. This was so much part of what was happening to her during this day. Since she spends the last thirty minutes of the film dealing with what she experiences in the bathroom, you can't really avoid showing the fetus. The shot is not long. People tell me that it's one minute, but it's only fourteen seconds or so—the length that was needed for her to deliver her lines. When I edited the film I realized this was part of the story and would have to remain.
Cineaste: Nevertheless, have some viewers or critics objected to this shot?
Mungiu: Well, something else is happening here. Romanians, including myself, are not familiar with the kind of imagery used by antiabortion organizations over here. I come from a country where abortion is not an issue anymore—in any sense. It's strange, but it's a very poor country experiencing many other problems. So the more economic problems you have, the less time you have to think about moral issues. You're just concerned with making a living.
Cineaste: Yes, I'm sure part of the reaction to the shot is connected to revulsion against the imagery used by antiabortion propagandists.
Mungiu: Yes, but what made me happy about the reaction to the film at festivals, and in the States, was that people realize that the film is just trying to tell a story. It's not taking sides. I hope the film will serve as a departure point for people to form their own opinions.
Cineaste: Wasn't there a controversy recently about the film being screened in French schools?
Mungiu:Yes, there was a huge protest by an association of filmmakers in France against the French minister of education's attempt to censor the film. At some point, they wanted to draw back from screening the film in French high schools. I won an award while in Cannes called "La Prix de L'Éducation nationale." My understanding was that the film wouldn't necessarily be shown in all of the schools but a documentary about the film would be shown and eventually the film itself would be screening in schools and DVDs made available. Apparently some French antiabortion organization protested. You can never tell with this film; in some countries, it is used as a tool against abortion! Finally, though, this organization gave up and it will be shown in French schools. Not only that, there's also the possibility that the same thing will be done in Romania. I think, in a way, it's even more important for young people in Romania to see the film.
Cineaste: I suppose the decision to employ "real time" in the film arose from your decision to follow the journey of one protagonist and her actions and thought processes.
Mungiu: Yes, this is also why I didn't use music, intrusive editing, or even close-ups if possible. I wanted to keep a proper distance from the subject and be honest with the story. I feel that, if you're honest but stay true to the story, the audience will also react more honestly than if I was constantly imposing my own point of view.
Cineaste: And you must have worked quite closely with your cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, to achieve this esthetic.
Mungiu: Well, we were colleagues in film school and we started working about thirteen years ago. We did more than ten films together as well as some commercials. It's easy to work with him since I've known him for such a long time. But since he isn't Romanian, and was born in Kishinev in Moldova, I had to explain to him what I wanted as far as the realism of the film was concerned. With the interiors, I wanted to use as little artificial light as possible and I wanted to shoot at night for the exteriors. Historically speaking, there were no streetlights in Romania. So he was inventive enough to carry some lights on top of the cameras so we could understand what was happening to a character when we were following her for 200 meters during a night scene. I hate films when you can see a beam of light illuminating the characters. It wasn't like this at all; he did a tremendous job.
Cineaste: And he was also the camera operator.
Mungiu: Yes, and operating the camera for this film was a very physical job, very difficult. He climbed downstairs with this girl for the long shot in the hotel. To do the shot at the end of the film, we started in the street and we walked with the whole crew up to a block of flats carrying everything including the sound equipment.
Cineaste: It seems a bit reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers' technique.
Cineaste: It's also interesting that there are several directors in Romania working in a naturalistic style. Of course, I noticed that you remarked in Sight & Sound that you didn't think there was a unified "group" of Romanian directors. Do you dislike the category now known as the "Romanian New Wave?"
Mungiu: Well, the only thing that makes these directors a group is the fact that they all received recognition around the same time and are about the same age; there's a Romanian "wave," if you like, but not a Romanian "school." It's not as if we share an esthetic manifesto. Some of the films have similar traits. But if you watch my film next to films by Catalin Mitulescu, Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, they're all very different. I think this is one of the good things about this wave of filmmakers. They are quite diverse and don't necessarily view cinema in the same way. Some of the films share realism in common or a certain form of humor. One thing we all have in common is the fact that we are not only writer-directors, but also produce the films ourselves. So, within the limitations of our small budgets, we all have the freedom to make the films we see fit. Not one of us would ever make any comments regarding box-office potential—there is no box-office potential. There are only thirty-five movie theaters left in Romania.
Cineaste: Are the Romanian films screened in theaters? Or is the situation similar to other countries where American product dominates.
Mungiu: Even though Romanian films are screened, American movies make up eighty per cent of the market. But the situation is not good since Romanians don't go to see many films in theaters at all; they don't have theaters to see films. But now that I'm in a position to do something, I've organized a caravan to show films all over Romania. The results have been quite spectacular and I think we're proving a point. We've done our part; the films have done very well at festivals, and the people who have seen them in Romania like them. So maybe now we'll get someone to invest in exhibition.
Cineaste: Although many people now see films on DVDs, it's a much different experience seeing them theatrically.
Mungiu:Yes, just think about how this film was made. It was shot in widescreen and it has a lot of details placed in the background because I never wanted them to become the subject of the film.
Cineaste: Yes, and this film is partially about the specific duration of events. So there's a real necessity to see it from beginning to end without interruption.
Mungiu: Yes, it makes a big difference if you see the film theatrically and don't pause to get up to get a beer. But, during the last fifteen years, Romanians have gotten used to seeing films mostly on home video. But it's important to know if people want to see films in theaters because there's no point making films on film if they just want to watch DVDs.
Cineaste: In scouting locations, did you attempt to find ones such as the hotel that had the feel of Romania during the last years of Communism?
Mungiu: It wasn't easy. Even though the action of the film doesn't take place in Bucharest, it was possible for us to shoot exteriors there. I wanted to emphasize that this wasn't happening in Bucharest since abortion was a much more complicated issue in the provinces. The possibilities were much more limited. But, given my small budget, I couldn't fly to distant locations and had to shoot in Bucharest.There are two hotels in the film and I couldn't find a second appropriate hotel in Bucharest. You can find many socialist-looking buildings but not necessarily places where you're able to shoot because they have air conditioning, satellite dishes, and all of the windows have been changed. I finally found a second hotel about eighty kilometers from Bucharest. Even with the same hotel, I made a lot of changes. The room I chose for the negotiation scene didn't have the right walls but was at least quiet. There was a tram outside the first one and I only used direct sound. So I painted the walls of the room and covered one window and built a fake wall and took furniture from another room. So, even though I intervened and made changes to these "real locations," there is an aspect of filming in actual locations that helps the actors.
Cineaste: And it was helpful that you received some support from the Hubert Bals Fund of the Rotterdam Film Festival?
Mungiu: That support was not only helpful financially. It was even more helpful from a logistical viewpoint since this provided the initial confirmation that the screenplay was doable. I got very good feedback and reinforced my idea that this would be the first film in the cycle although I had written another screenplay previously. Furthermore, Rotterdam helped by having a screening before Cannes of a rough cut for sales agents and a very few critics. This was very helpful since it informed people that the film was ready for Cannes and was of interest.
Cineaste: So in conclusion, wouldn't you say that 4 Months shouldn't be reduced to being termed an "abortion film?"
Mungiu: Yes, but it can be. In countries like Italy and Poland the abortion issue was much more important than the film. It was impossible to speak about anything else. But people who actually see the film never come out with the impression that they've seen a film about abortion. I am glad that, despite all of the expectations people have about the film before actually seeing it, it's a different experience when they actually see it.
Richard Porton is currently editing an anthology on film festivals for Wallflower Press.