The big surprise about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is not that it's a deserving winner of the Cannes Film Festival's top award (which it is), nor that it ratifies Romania's newly prominent status in the Premiership of world cinema (which it does), nor even that it will make you feel buoyant about the future of film (which it will). What caught me unawares was just how suspenseful it is.
The subject matter - illegal abortion in 1980s Romania - sounds fit for the kitchen sink, or for neo-realism. (Failing that, it might have had a chance of being an eastern European Knocked Up.) Sure enough, the director, Cristian Mungiu, draws on the conventions of the most austere art-house cinema: dour imagery, dishcloth-faced actors, shots that seem to last four months, three weeks and two days. But he has forged from these elements a cracking thriller that lavishes compassion on all its characters, and runs to a grinding, merciless momentum.
Before our eyes see anything, our ears are greeted by a ticking clock. That sound subsides, but the sense of some ongoing countdown to doom remains throughout the film. First and foremost is the race against time for the student Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to arrange an abortion for her room-mate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). This is catalogued in excruciating detail, from Otilia's thwarted attempts to book a room at a hotel where the staff won't ask awkward questions, to her meeting with the abortionist himself, who goes by the mordant, macabre name of Mr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov).
Bebe doesn't seem like a bad sort, under the circumstances. He has identified a demand and is doing his best to meet it, travelling from hotel to hotel with his mysterious briefcase and helping young women out of their predicament. But by the time it becomes apparent that he's no Vera Drake, it is too late: like Otilia and Gabita, we are lumbered with him. What promised to be a nice, wholesome film about backstreet abortion morphs suddenly into something of an altogether darker hue.
The urgency of the picture is underpinned by the knowledge, accessible to us through the title but denied to everyone in the film, of precisely how far into her pregnancy Gabita really is. There are other, simultaneous countdowns under way. Romania itself is sitting out the last days of communism and Ceausescu. And the plucky, resolute Otilia is fighting against the domesticated future that her boyfriend imagines for her. "I'm not spending my life making your potatoes!" she fumes, delivering one of those great rejoinders that many of us will now try our darnedest to shoehorn into actual domestic spats.
Otilia is right to fear those potatoes, if the film's equation of food with horror is anything to go by. Not since La Grande Bouffe has a picture been more likely to put you off your grub. Mealtimes here are pregnant with dread; whenever the characters gather for dinner, the atmosphere suggests a communal chow-down on death row. And while the picture is far from coy about the abortion itself, there is a sense in which the grisliness of the food served is some kind of surrogate for the gruesome procedure undertaken.
In the film's closing scene, a literal Last Supper, Otilia and Gabita are served marrow, brains and liver in a deserted restaurant. Maybe this meal is big in Romania, but I detected in that detail an uncomfortable, even judgemental suggestion of cannibalism, as though Mungiu were punishing these already beleaguered women for their actions.
More impressive is the earlier sequence in which Otilia leaves Gabita at the hotel to endure the after-effects of the termination while she attends a party with her boyfriend's family. In the endless shot of Otilia squashed between the dinner guests, growing ever more blankly despairing as the conversation turns to unsightly food (chicken skin, greasy soup, pork fat) and a telephone rings incessantly in the background, Mungiu drums up the kind of nerve-racking setpiece that all good thrillers need. That he does so with a stubbornly unmoving camera, no music and action that is all taking place off-screen marks him out as a master of resourcefulness. I would, however, be extremely wary of accepting a dinner invitation from him. lPoetic drama about Kurdish musicians en route to a concert.
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