The “Romanian abortion movie”

I finally watched “the Romanian abortion movie,” Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.  This was the film that won the Cannes Palme D’Or in 2007 and, along with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (by a different director), has been heralded as a standard-bearer of a Romanian new wave of cinema.

I’ve had both movies in my Netflix queue for quite a while.  I really wanted to see them both, but somehow, it can be hard to find the right Saturday evening for the harrowing tale of a college girl’s illegal abortion in Communist Romania under Ceausescu, or the harrowing tale of the grim final hours of a dying old man in Communist Romania who is dragged in an ambulance from hospital to hospital, each turning him away.  And Sarah kind of has her eye on me in terms of getting ultra-grim fare for our movie nights.  There’s an implicit household rule in place saying that for every movie to which adjectives like “harrowing,” “unflinching,” or “uncompromising” would be likely to be applied (or phrases like “dark journey into…”), there should be one better described as “entertaining,” “fun,” or the like.  (OK, maybe I push it to a two to one or so ratio.  There just aren’t enough “fun,” light movies that are any good.)

I finally found the right moment for the illegal late-term abortion (in a society in which abortion is punished by jail sentence) movie: while Sarah is out of town.

It turns out to be a really great movie.  Is completely engrossing, compelling, like a good thriller.  Admittedly slow (filmed in real time, with no music) and definitely hard to take at some moments, but  humanistic and life-affirming in the end, not in fact “depressing” (but instead energizing and inspiring) although about some very depressing experiences.  But, maybe that’s just me.  And I don’t know, if you’re someone who’s had a difficult experience with an abortion, quite possibly the movie would be too excruciating.  I’ll make one small spoiler/ disclosure by saying that (a) you do actually see the dead fetus towards the end, in an extended shot, and/but (2) the movie does not end in an entirely brutal/horrifying way.

It reminded me of Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in some odd ways.  The abortionist is an unforgettably awful character who reminded me slightly of the taxi driver played brilliantly by Eddie Marsan in Leigh’s film, although the tonality is very different.  And the dinner party scene with the boyfriend’s parents is memorably terrible in a Mike Leigh kind of way (as Roger Ebert pointed out), as Otilia endures her boyfriend’s parents’ friends’ self-congratulatory palaver while she waits to return to her friend, who could be bleeding to death alone in her hotel room.  (The parents and their friends are professionals who have given into and accepted Ceausescu’s regime, and profited from it.  They patronize Otilia because her father was a common soldier.)

Also, both movies (this one and Happy-Go-Lucky) are very much about female friendship and loyalty, and more specifically, the young adult female friendship of roommates: both about the relationships of two women in their 20s who’ve lived together for years to the point where they feel almost like sisters.  Part of what’s moving about the movie is Otilia’s unquestioning, unwavering willingness to do whatever it takes (and it takes a lot) to help her friend.

And then there are the obvious Vera Drake analogies.  I wonder if any smart-aleck theater curator has ever organized a triple “abortion movie” showing of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Vera Drake and Juno. Could be fun.

The film magazine Cineaste points out that one of Ceausescu’s

most notorious fiats—Decree 770 issued in 1966—outlawed abortion and proceeded to reward mothers of multiple children with medals and lavish praise for their efforts to build a populous socialist bulwark. Unlike campaigns against abortion in the West, Ceausescu’s imposition of mandatory motherhood (at least for women under forty-five) had nothing to do with religious or moral doctrines. It was instead aligned to what the Romanian author Norman Manea terms “the state ownership of human beings”—the obliteration of the private realm enforced by an intractable bureaucracy.

To get a bit academic about it, you could also think of the relevance of Georgio Agamben’s concept of “bare life” to the movie: the concept of a political order in which the definition of what counts as “life and the living” is determined and controlled by the state, and certain forms of life are defined as purely biological, living but symbolically cast out of the political realm.  To mount my hobbyhorse briefly, I’ll also point out that the movie does small but interesting things with domestic animals that seem to function as images of “bare,” orphaned, or absolutely vulnerable/exposed life: the goldfish in the opening scene, the kittens found abandoned in the boiler room, the roaming dogs.

Really, you should see it!  Pop up a bowl of popcorn and settle in.

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