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