The title of Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, also known as the acclaimed Romanian drama that didn't get nominated for this year's foreign-language Oscar, refers to the length of the pregnancy that a college student named Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) seeks to terminate in a midsize Romanian town circa 1987, when Nicolae Ceausescu is still in power and abortions are highly illegal. But the central character in Mungiu's masterfully crafted sophomore feature, which reopens in local theaters this weekend following a one-week run last December, turns out to be Gabita's friend and roommate, Otilia (played by the brilliant Anamaria Marinca), who helps to coordinate the backroom procedure and ends up paying her own hefty physical and psychological toll. Last fall, following the film's New York Film Festival premiere, I sat on a rock in Central Park with the 39-year-old director and his 29-year-old star to discuss the making of the film and its place in the Romanian cinema's exciting new wave.
L.A. WEEKLY: You've said that the film is based on a true story. Is it something that happened to someone you knew, or that you read about in the news?
CRISTIAN MUNGIU: Yes, it was somebody that I knew. It was a person that was quite close to me, and I think I first heard the story about 15 years ago. There was nothing much to change about it. I checked later on just to make sure this wasn't a very unusual story. I talked to lots of people, and I got a lot of very interesting stories. But finally I decided to just stick to my story, not only because it was personal, but because this was the story I had heard directly, with all the emotions and surprises which this girl had and with a lot of details.
Anamaria, what was your reaction when you first read the script?
ANAMARIA MARINCA: Because I didn't have the opportunity to meet Cristian before, my only means of knowing who he is was through his writing, and I trusted his artistic choices, in the plot and how he structured the story. It was very, very interesting to me. Especially his perspective, because it's not a classical plot where everything happens to the hero. I'm parallel to the story itself. I'm not the one having the abortion.
Since its premiere in Cannes, 4 Months has been dubbed "the Romanian abortion movie," but it seems that abortion is really the film's way into a much broader study of Communist-era Romania and the ways in which people adapt to living under such oppressive circumstances.
MUNGIU: It didn't start from the idea of making a film about abortion. I hope that it speaks about this period and how people adapted, as you say. And I also hope it speaks about something that is not just connected with that period. For me, it's also a film about responsibilities and decision making, and I think these are things which are very universal, and I believe that is why there is this sympathy for the film in lots of places. Even in places where people don't know much about what was going on in Romania, people still relate to this.
Tell me about your decision to shoot the film exclusively in long, unbroken camera setups, or "sequence shots," as they are sometimes called.
MUNGIU: I decided this during the writing, and I wrote the script in such a way that this would be possible. But things are not that simple, because you become like the prisoner of your own decision, and everything is shaped in connection with this, and you don't realize all the consequences of this kind of filmmaking when you decide this. For example, I needed actors who would be capable of sustaining the tension and remembering the text of such long scenes, which is not a simple thing to do. And it's not just about the text — they had to be present in the situation. I wanted to allow them to develop emotion in front of the camera and not be cutting every two seconds, or moving in close. The most important part of all this was not to have us as filmmakers present in the film.
MARINCA: For me, it was bliss, because I come from the theater. I only just started playing in television, and this is my first feature film. So for me, the more I get to play in continuity, the better. Psychologically, that gives you somewhere to start from, and to evolve. It gives you this pleasure of playing, whereas in most movies you have this shot-countershot approach that fragments everything you do. Each time, you have to re-create mentally the atmosphere, whereas here you just went for it.
2007 was the third consecutive year in which a Romanian film won a major prize in Cannes, and it has now become quite common for critics attending film festivals to say to each other, "Make sure to see the Romanian film." There has also been lots of talk about a Romanian "new wave" that includes you, Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest) and Radu Muntean (The Paper Will Be Blue). Why is all of this happening now?
MUNGIU: I don't have the right explanation for why this is happening in Romania now, but there are some partial explanations. For example, you say it has become a habit of some people to go see Romanian films, and that explains a little bit what is going on: Once we managed to have the first film in Cannes, and then a second one, and then we started getting awards every year and having responses from lots of festivals, it was very motivating for everybody. There's a kind of a positive competition among these directors, to respect this level of quality, to take themselves very seriously and to compare what they do with the others. There's also something about the way we make films. We are all our own producers, so there's no economic pressure. Nobody expects a result in terms of the marketplace. There is no market over there locally.
MARINCA: More importantly, they're authors. They are the creators of their work.
MUNGIU: This is an important point, because I take this for granted. This is why it's so difficult for me to answer the question of whether I want to work in America. I mean, I don't think the way that I work is possible to be translated here, because I make all the decisions. If someone wants to work with me under these conditions here, I would come gladly. There's something else which is very difficult to explain, which is that these new directors have thought more about cinema and they just have something more to say than some other generations which came before.
What are some of your filmmaking influences?
MUNGIU: There is a common influence that I think we all have, but which is especially strong with me: I started wanting to make films not from watching something that was wonderful but from watching very stupid Romanian films. I would go to the cinema, and I would watch those films and think, "These people look like us and they seem to be talking the same language, but they are aliens. We don't talk like this. Nothing like this ever happens. It's hilarious!" It was that reaction, I think, that made all of us think of cinema in terms of realism. But that doesn't answer your question.
I had influences, but I didn't really get a systematic education about cinema. I didn't come from Bucharest; I'm from up north. So I was seeing films at random. As a child, I could see American and French films. Then there was a period when I was a student when I could see what they called the cinematheque films: Tarkovsky and Kieslowski and the Nouvelle Vague and some Germans. But it all stopped in the '70s. You couldn't see anything that was contemporary. Then, there was a video period in Romania, starting around 1987. You couldn't see films in the cinema any longer, but Romanian television would steal films from satellite or from VHS, and they would cut off the credits so you wouldn't know what film it was. Later on, when I got to film school, I discovered that I am kind of close to the Czech film school — Milos Forman's films from the '70s and Jiri Menzel — and to Italian neorealism. But I like films: I don't like current [trends] or authors. I relate to individual films more.
Anamaria, did you always want to be an actress?
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MARINCA: Not at all. I was trained as a violinist from the time I was 6. My mother is a violinist, so I always had this background. But when I was 18, I just decided to try something else. All I'd known was music, and I just wanted to know if I was able to do something else. I was seeing a lot of movies, and I knew there were other solutions on those scenes — if I were to do it, I would have done it differently. I was very interested in the process — in that fine line between fiction and reality. That idea hounds me even now — that fiction is more real than reality. For an actor, we live more intensely when we're in a play or a movie.
This is a very subtle film in which a number of key actions take place entirely offscreen. But one thing you do choose to show — and it has become the most debated scene in the film — is the graphic image of the aborted fetus itself. Why was that important for you?
MUNGIU: When I wrote, I thought I was going to show it, but later on I doubted myself, so I shot the scene two different ways, just to make sure that I had the option in postproduction. But once we were editing the film, it was obvious to me that it had to be there, because it is part of the story. Sometimes I wonder why people ask about this, because if you understand that I'm talking about a character who comes to understand something because of what she sees, it's very obvious for me. I never thought about this in terms of some political debate. It's part of what I wanted to say and part of my story. I thought that it was necessary to show things that are more terrifying when you see them than when you imagine them. It's up to you to find your own conclusion.
MARINCA: It's a very controversial subject and scene. For me, it's the right thing at the right time. It's about an author's vision, and you don't question that. Whether you like it or not or you think it's necessary, it's not any of our business. That's how we chose to show it to you. If it's too painful to watch, that's your problem. Those are the facts. This is what a fetus looks like. It's not to say, "Look, it has eyes and hands — it's already a person." Don't make that mistake. It's not saying it's wrong to have an abortion or it's right. To me, it has something to do with the past and the future. They say if you don't understand your past, you don't have a future. I don't know if that fetus represents the future or the past, but we'll see. Romania is still very young as a free nation.