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Running out of time: Vasiliu in Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days.

Life in Hell

By Laura Leon

Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days

Directed by Cristian Mungiu

 

Several friends and coworkers asked me on Monday morning if I had seen any movies, and each time I responded that I had viewed Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, every single one of them said “Oh, the abortion movie.” That description is akin to describing The Grapes of Wrath as that story about fruit picking, or To Have and Have Not as a whistling tutorial.

Sure, the very title of this haunting Romanian film refers to the pregnancy of one of its lead characters, the somnolent Ga bita (Laura Vasiliu), a student in Communist-era Budapest, and the plot involves the efforts of her best friend and roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to assist her in procuring an illegal abortion. So, yes, in that sense, the movie does deal, in very stark yet emotional terms, with the consequences of an unwanted pregnancy. But writer-director Mungiu reaches for much more, and thankfully, in so doing avoids the possibility of Four Months becoming a football in yet another pro- and anti-abortion debate. His primary objective is to depict life and its meaning under a totalitarian regime—and he succeeds brilliantly.

When Four Months begins, we confront a cheap kitchen table, topped with an ugly plastic cloth, a messy ashtray, and other accoutrements of daily living. A hand reaches in to swipe a cigarette; the audience will soon discover this sort of isolated vision of body parts (as opposed to full shots of people), is a favorite motif of the director, used to imply the disjointedness of the lives of his characters. (Later, the abortionist is viewed from thigh to chest, making his ministrations doubly haunting.) Equally disjointed is the conversation between Gabita and Otilia: In monosyllabic sentences they talk about sheets, a borrowed hair dryer, money, upcoming exams. Mungiu’s camera follows Otilia as she leaves the prisonlike cinder-block dormitory and heads into a series of meetings, each of which is fraught with tension and growing apprehension, and all of which beautifully buttress the director’s vision of a paranoid society. At each juncture, Gabita’s complete uselessness in planning is made clear, as is Otilia’s ability to navigate the labyrinthine system of bribes, counterbribes and black-market trade. A quest for Kent cigarettes becomes not so much symbolic of a particular smoker’s taste specifications, as it is a crucial bargaining chip.

The movie’s most compelling act comes not with the abortion, but its aftermath, when Otilia must fulfill an obligation to attend her boyfriend’s family dinner party. Having had to resort to all manner of degrading behavior in order to assist Gabita, a shell-shocked, spiritually spent Otilia is filmed for what seems like ages, looking straight on at the audience while sitting amid a crowd of chattering diners. It’s a brave bit of filmmaking, for it forces the audience to consider our complicity in the lives and fates of others, while also demonstrating an older generation’s willingness to submit to tyranny provided they can still get decent wine or exemptions from military service for their kids. It’s not for nothing that the movie takes place just shy of the revolution that overthrew Ceausescu, and one can almost imagine Otilia channeling her rage and despondency into action.

Throughout Four Months, there are moments when the audience expects it to resort to the language of a thriller. Otilia, in a particularly perilous moment at night, is followed by someone: Is he a rapist? A suspicious cop? When Otilia turns to confront him, it’s a shockingly brave act. While the cinematic style of Four Months is often grainy and jittery, I think it’s another example of Mungiu’s brilliant instincts as moviemaker and storyteller. That graininess, that jumpiness, parallels Otilia’s shocking 24-hour journey, and, by extension, the mindset and turmoil of an entire system. Yes, an abortion plays a central part in the machinations of Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, but this is a movie that begs to consider the human element in something much bigger and potentially more harrowing.

End of the Line

Honeydripper

Directed by John Sayles

Ever see a big old diesel locomotive running on a 12 MPH-restricted, short-line railway? It’s slow. And watching something that big move that slowly is, well, excruciating. John Sayles’ new drama, set in the backwoods of the segregated deep South in the early 1950s, seems almost that slow—and watching it is almost as excruciating.

Honeydripper is another sprawling Sayles ensemble piece, and he’s not getting better at making them. Honeydripper is worse than 2004’s shambling Bush parody Silver City, which was a decline from 2002’s pretty good Sunshine State. Like those films, the new one is thematically ambitious and oozes social consciousness. Unlike Sunshine State, his droll look at contemporary Florida overdevelopment and race relations, however, Honeydripper fails to leaven the political-racial-social lecturing with humor—or fresh insight.

The center of the story is the Honeydripper juke-joint run by Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis (Danny Glover, authoritative as ever). Purvis has money problems, and will lose the place if the Saturday night show he’s booked featuring an out-of-town guitar star doesn’t pack ’em in. There are a dozen other characters, some of whom—like Tyrone’s wife, played by Lisa Gay Hamilton—get enough time to make an impression. And even with the cardboard cutouts they’re given to play, Charles S. Dutton (as Purvis’ bartender), Mary Steenburgen (as an alcoholic society lady) and Sean Patrick Thomas (as a city slicker hiding out in the country) provide a few moments of fun.

The good acting can’t hide the obviousness of the plot, however. There isn’t a single surprising moment in the film.

And it’s slow—did I mention it’s slow? This is, no doubt, for verisimilitude, but with all of this film’s other drawbacks, watching the action unfold is, well, like watching that big old locomotive inch into the station.

—Shawn Stone


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