*4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (NR)
Kimball's Twin Peak
Can a film still be great if, during one pivotal moment, you simply cannot believe a character's choice? That's the crucial challenge in assessing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, writer-director Cristian Mungiu's Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or winner.
As film craft it's mesmerizing, nearly every shot a textbook example of brilliant composition. Mungiu establishes a propulsive plot and paints a fascinating portrait of Romanian society at the end of Nicolae Ceausescu's Communist rule. Throw in a terrific lead performance and you should have a film for the ages. Except for that one moment ...
Set in 1987 Romania, Mungiu's film begins with college roommates Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) preparing to take a trip. Their destination, however, isn't a freewheeling adventure it gradually becomes evident that the film's title refers to Gabita's unintended pregnancy and the illegal abortion her friend is helping her to obtain.
From the outset, Mungiu does a magnificent job of capturing the film's time and place. It's a world of long, dark industrial hallways with a black-marketeer on every corner. Otilia attempts to track down cigarettes as a bribe, deals with service people who seem to think speaking to her is a favor, and endures a nonstop relay of keys and IDs just to rent a hotel room.
The milieu is fascinating enough, but it's the way Mungiu orients us in this world that is gripping. It's an astonishing example of a director in complete control of what his camera shows us, and when. In one hotel-room scene, Mungiu's shot shows only Gabita's legs below the waist, her entire being reduced to the status of her abdomen. Later, Otilia walks the streets desperately hoping to find a late-night ride home, and the camera's position on an overpass turns the simple act into pure tension. And, in the film's most gripping segment, Otilia endures an obligatory visit to a birthday party, virtually frozen in place as conversation buzzes about, her mind fixed on Gabita waiting helplessly for her return.
In nearly every possible way, Mungiu appears in command of the film except for that one ridiculous dramatic choice. Warning: We venture close to spoiler territory here, addressing an interaction between the abortionist and the women that grows increasingly horrifying as the specifics of the transaction take shape. But the upshot involves Otilia making a sacrifice on Gabita's behalf and if everything we know about Otilia makes sense, there's no way she does what she does for the reasons provided. Mungiu appears determined to make his protagonists' already-terrible situation somehow more terrible and in so doing, ends up violating his characters himself.
Had 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days not established itself so masterfully, and created such an engrossing story thereafter, this moment could have been a deal-breaker. But there's a line between "extraordinary" and "absurd," and Mungiu crosses it. For just a few misguided minutes, he doesn't appear to trust in the power of his simpler artistic decisions. The other 110 minutes show exactly why he should have.