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'4 Months': raw but rewarding

December 21, 2007|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

AS written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" takes pains not to be flashy, not to do anything that, in the director's words, "could be seen as staged or conventional." Instead, it conveys unblinking and despairing emotional truth with enough intensity to leave you gasping for air.

If you are film-aware, you've already heard about this powerhouse Romanian film, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes as well as the European Film Award and came close to taking three top prizes during the recent Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. voting. But even if you think you know about it, this film's confidence, ambition and impact will take you by surprise and shake you up.

The reason "4 Months," which has a one-week run in Los Angeles to qualify for Oscar consideration, has such resonance is because it believes with fearless audacity in the power and possibility of the medium. Writer-director Mungiu has an almost old-fashioned faith that film can explore the most painful subjects, ask the deepest questions, deliver the most important meanings.

"4 Months" is the latest in a series of films that have come from Romania that seem to herald a late-blooming cinematic renaissance there. These works, including "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and "12:08 East of Bucharest," share a bleak worldview and a kinship with socially conscious pre-glasnost films made behind the Iron Curtain, such as the Hungarian "Angi Vera" and Kryztof Kieslowski's "Camera Buff."

Like these works, "4 Months" manages to seamlessly join bigger questions to impeccably observed everyday stories. Set in 1987 in the last days of the Ceausescu dictatorship (a title at the close refers to a series ironically called "Tales From the Golden Age"), the film demonstrates with off-handed power how completely a corrupt society can dehumanize its citizens and almost destroy those trapped in it.

From its opening scenes in a university dorm, "4 Months" illustrates the bleakness of life in a society in collapse, where everyone ignores the rules and cheats on the system, where everything you want, from a pack of cigarettes to an abortion, is available on the black market -- for a price.

As the title hints, it is an abortion that roommates Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are seeking. Gabita is the one who's pregnant, but, as the film increasingly reveals, she is self-absorbed and unrealistic, so it is left to the energetic, pragmatic Otilia to finalize the arrangements.

"4 Months" is set in one 24-hour period, and it turns out to be the longest and most hellish day and night of the soul imaginable, and no one could be better at conveying its agonies than actress Marinca. She is so convincing, so compelling that it doesn't seem like she's acting at all. Rather, the film makes us believe that its events are actually happening right in front of us, that we are for all intents and purposes living them ourselves.

Things start badly for Otilia with a mix-up over hotel accommodations and difficulties with her boyfriend, but all that is nothing compared with what happens when the two women meet Mr. Bebe, the abortionist.

As played by Vlad Ivanov (who deservedly won the LAFCA best supporting actor award), Bebe is a subtle and terrifying monster. He can make small talk and sound like a candid professional, but he is also a creature of barely controlled fury and savagery, and his actions lead Otilia to a crisis in her life that all but tears her apart.

Though Mungiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu (who also shot "Mr. Lazarescu") are determined not to be flamboyant, don't mistake their austerity for lack of skill. Carefully alternating a moving camera with scenes in which the camera doesn't budge, "4 Months" is put together by a team in masterful control of each and every scene.

What that control beautifully creates is a kind of realism so unblinking, so despairing, that it is almost terrifying. Whether it's a family dinner from hell or scenes of the abortion itself, scenes that are humiliating and dehumanizing but never exploitative, this is a film with a commitment to reality unlike any we're used to seeing. "You don't need a big budget and big stars to make a story that moves audiences," Mungiu said in Cannes, and this film emphatically proves his point.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." No MPAA rating. In Romanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. Laemmle's Sunset 5, West Hollywood.

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