THIS year's Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," chronicles a bleak day in the life of a pregnant college student who enlists her roommate to arrange an illegal abortion. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu's drama culminates in a brutal bargain the two women strike with a black-market abortionist. And the backdrop for Romania's foreign language film Oscar contender is every bit as grim as the characters' predicament.
"4 Months" takes place in the winter of 1987, two years before communism collapsed in Eastern Europe. Mungiu was 19 at the time and vividly remembers daily life during the waning days of Nicolae Ceausescu's regime. "Everything was difficult, nothing came easy, people were not joyful," Mungiu recalled during a visit to Los Angeles last month. "There was this general feeling that you're being watched. Everybody who had a little authority over you would use it and abuse it somehow."
To evoke the period's drab atmosphere, Mungiu made Bucharest's gray skies appear even more dreary with a bleach-bypass process that reduced the images' color saturation on film by 30%. He instructed his production designer to eliminate all colorful objects and shot exclusively at real locations. "Even for the scenes that take place at night," he recalls, "we tried to respect the historical truth, which is to say, we used very little light. In the last years of communism, it was complete darkness and we wanted to preserve that feeling as much as possible."
Mungiu found most of his cast through the TV commercials he directs between movie projects but spotted his star, BAFTA-winning actress Anamaria Marinca in the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Channel 4 miniseries "Sex Traffic." "She was the last actress to audition for me," he recalls. "I called Anamaria in London and flew her to Romania. When she read for me, I saw this amazing blend of strength and sensitivity. Suddenly, my character Otilia was talking through Anamaria's mouth, as if she were possessed."
Following a series of intense rehearsals last fall, Mungiu filmed the actors in long, uninterrupted takes. Performances feel more organic that way, Mungiu says. "I find that actors relate to a scene better if you allow them to develop their emotions in a continuous shot for several minutes. When you stop to change the camera's perspective every two minutes they lose this flow of energy."
The film almost wasn't ready in time for the festival. "Last October, I was rewriting, scouting, casting and looking for money all at the same time. I'm my own producer, so I could make all the decisions. I convinced the others to work over Christmas and New Year's Eve to make sure we'd have the film ready for Cannes." After snagging the top French prize in May, Mungiu's quick turnaround character study (which opens theatrically in February) gathered additional buzz at the Telluride, Toronto and New York film festivals before earning a nod earlier this month from the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. as 2007's best foreign language film.
Based on a true story that haunted Mungiu for 15 years, "4 Months" -- shot by cinematographer Oleg Mutu (2005's Un Certain Regard Cannes prize winner for "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu") -- implicitly addresses the effect of Romania's 1966 abortion ban but steers clear of speechifying. Instead, mundane obstacles underscore the characters' wary worldview. Marinca's stoic heroine is worn down by bureaucratic clerks, sluggish public transportation and needy boyfriends, not evil dictators or aging ideologies.
"This film comes from the perspective of somebody living at that time, which is why I decided not to have any direct mention of communism or Ceausescu. To me, that has become a little bit cliche," Mungiu says. "I also didn't want side stories and biographies to explain motivations. You never know who the father is. That's not relevant. I wanted to make this very simple epic that relates what happened to these girls in one day, from morning to evening. This is something I think goes beyond the historical context. It can be understood by everybody, even today.
"Honestly, I never thought I was going to make a film about this story because it's so personal," he says. "But when you are looking for a story to tell, everything that's ever happened kind of transmits to you a signal about what you have to do."