Life, the state, and a pack of Kents

Anamaria Marinca in Cristian Mungiu's "4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days" (2007)
Anamaria Marinca in Cristian Mungiu's "4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days" (2007)

At the beginning of Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or-winning film 4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days, the camera lingers on a goldfish in a square bowl. The fish seems to be trying to escape, not by jumping out, but by pushing directly against the glass, its tail thrusting spiritedly but without result.

It is an effective if too obvious metaphor for Romanian society under the latter days of communist strongman Nicolae Ceauşescu; the action here takes place in 1987, two years before the dictator’s fall. As the camera pulls back, we see that the bowl rests on a fold-out table in the dorm room of two female students at a regional technical college. The women are preparing for a trip of some kind. Gabita is packing a bag nervously, while Otilia ventures up and down the halls of the dorm, attempting to buy a pack of Kent cigarettes from a student-run black market dispensary two doors down, and purchasing soap for her friend to add to her baggage.

They are pretty young women, but otherwise average. Like most of their friends, they are criminals –- Ceauşescu’s economic policies had created intense shortages and had driven Romanians to participate regularly in the underground economy -– but they are in fact planning a much greater crime. Gabita is pregnant, and wants an abortion.

In Romania (unlike in the Soviet Union), abortion had been criminalized since 1966. In that year, Ceauşescu issued his infamous Decree 770, with which he sought to create a new Romania through a deliberately engineered baby boom. Thus 4 Weeks, 3 Months, and 2 Days is both a film about an abortion -– a harrowing one, at that -– and, perhaps more so, a film about what life is like when the law is an enemy rather than a friend.

Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is a quietly confident young woman, accustomed to operating in a world of black markets and pervasive corruption. She is looking for Kents not because she wants to smoke them, but because she wants to trade them: she needs to get a hotel room at short notice for Gabita’s procedure, and bribing a desk clerk is the only way to pull this off. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), by comparison, seems feckless and passive. Having been referred by a friend to a doctor who performs abortions, she unaccountably fails to call his preferred hotel to reserve a room in time, forcing Otilia to hurriedly find another. Later, ignoring the doctor’s instructions, she decides not to meet him in person, but to send Otilia instead. And with each failure to act, she sends a lie (she tells the doctor that Otilia is her sister) directed not at retrospectively justifying her passivity, but directed prospectively at ensuring that her passive approach will result in the end she desires. In a society built on lies and deceit, she’s an operator too.

Yet though their strategies and tricks have generally proved successful against the petty bureaucrats who enforce the regime’s minor rules, they turn out to be useless against a man like Doctor Bebe. A professional in his forties, Bebe seems at first to be nothing worse than a slightly grumpy father-figure. But once in their hotel room he begins gradually to weave a web of intimidation and fear. He points out the legal jeopardy they are all in already, and then, having exposed some of Gabita’s lies (including a rather big one concerning the stage of the pregnancy, which turns out to be worryingly close to the 5 months that defines “late term” — an abortion at this stage was punishable with a ten-year sentence under Romanian law), Bebe begins to hint that his payment will include sex with each of them. Naturally, they stall for time –- understandably unwilling to accept their own interpretation of his hints, and bewildered by this reversal in the expected progress of events -– and Bebe stages a furious walk-out in order to heighten their desperation and force them to agree. Terrified at being abandoned with their problem unresolved (how could they find a new doctor in the time available?), the women capitulate.

In his coercion of Gabita and Otilia, Bebe is an indirect product of the power of the state. Decree 770 offers desperate young women no other recourse than to break the law to procure an abortion, and thus forces them to seek help in a parallel world of anarchy and crime. Bebe rapes them because he can get away with it; he knows that they are both abjectly dependent on the service that only he can provide, and he knows that they are too terrified of arrest to report him for his crime. As inevitably occurs whenever the means to satisfy a human need or strong desire are banned, criminals occupy the void –- both to satisfy the need and to exploit the needy.

Yet Bebe is also a metaphor for that same power. He is a doctor, and so publicly claims to help the sick and the vulnerable. And, no doubt, he does so. Yet like a corrupt bureaucracy, he has a cynical eye on the side benefits that his services, and his position of power, can bring him. Thus he is capable of both grievously harming Gabita through rape, and afterwards, helping her by clinically and brusquely performing the desired abortion. Bebe even sounds like the government. In his increasingly one-sided negotiation with the women, he manages to sound disappointed, aggrieved, and bullying from one moment to the next. He speaks elliptically and vaguely, leaving Gabita and Otilia to attempt to restate more clearly what they think he meant, and then he scolds them for not listening to what he declares are his clear and repeated instructions. In both action and word, Bebe is the personification of the Romanian state under Ceauşescu.

Mungiu’s film is especially powerful in its portrayal of the long hours that follow the rapes and the abortion. Gabita and Otilia have sex with Bebe one after the other, so they pass each other in the bathroom: as one is finishing washing herself, the other enters. They do not look at each other. There is no solidarity in victimhood here; each woman has locked herself in her own private world of shame and shock. Once Bebe has left, and Gabita is confined to bed waiting for her miscarriage to begin, Otilia verbally reviews her friend’s lies, conducting her interrogation in a monotone of disbelief and suppressed fury. Yet the conversation peters out: Otilia is seeking the lie that led to this horrible event, but cannot put her finger on it. Otilia has to content herself with blaming Gabita in the most general of senses, but even this is little more than self-deception of the most ancient female type. Violence has been done to us; somehow we must have brought it on ourselves.

Though Gabita has been ordered not to move, Otilia has promised to attend her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday party, and her absence will be noticed. She leaves Gabita on the bed; their goodbyes are perfunctory, both women now emotionally withdrawn and exhausted. Once at the party, Otilia is quickly shepherded into the dining room and wedged between her boyfriend’s parents. The camera focuses on her for a long scene. All around her are middle aged professionals -– doctors mainly -– who chatter on about various banal and bourgeois topics (including a poignantly ignorant complaint about the spoiled children of today), and all the while Otilia’s face moves back and forth between polite smiles and flashes of stunned anxiety –- though whether she’s thinking about her friend’s condition or reliving the day’s horror is never clear. Over her shoulder broods her attentive but perplexed lover, who can neither understand her situation (even if he knew it) nor connect with her in any useful way. Surrounded by a generous and happy family, she is as alone as she can possibly be.

Mungiu’s long takes are particularly effective in portraying both discomfort and endurance. There are no short cuts offered, no way to escape the scene nor to shorten the time required to get to the other side. It is not enough for this director to simply trigger a flush of sympathy, or to convey only the idea of suffering. The situation must be lived, lived both in real time and wholly unadorned. Throughout the dinner table scene –- throughout the movie, in fact -– not a note of music is heard.

This refusal to use the tricks of the filmmaker’s trade to provoke emotional responses in the audience is one of the things that separates this film from another recent release set in Eastern Europe in the 1980s: Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s DasLeben der Anderen (“The Lives of Others”, 2006), which tells the story of a top Stasi officer assigned to the surveillance of East Germany’s most popular (and apparently loyal) playwright and director, Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch). Though considered an “independent” film – perhaps only because it was made in Europe — The Lives of Others has a classical build: a beautiful score, lovely cinematography and set design, short scene lengths, quick pacing, and plenty of plot twists to build suspense.

It also depicts communist oppression at its most, for lack of a better word, glamorous. Both observer and observed are at the top of their professional games, and the surveillance itself springs from political machinations at the highest ministerial level. The playwright lives with his beautiful girlfriend, the famed actress Christa-Maria Sieland (Martina Gedeck), and their parties host the most prestigious and talented of East Germany’s literati. When Dreyman finally decides to abandon the fine line between truth and loyalty he’s been tiptoeing down his entire career, his crime –- to pen an anonymous essay on the plague of suicide in the country, and to publish it in a West German newsmagazine — is of the highest political order. His Western editor smuggles an untraceable typewriter to him, so that if the manuscript is intercepted Dreyman himself will not be arrested. And all the while, the officer who has bugged his apartment (played by Ulrich Mühe, a well-respected German actor who died of cancer the year after the film was released) is wrestling with his own beliefs as his surveillance task exposes him to political debates and European culture for the first time.

Yet perhaps all of this beauty and high drama is the film’s Achilles heel. Its subject is too exceptional to serve as a comment on the lives of average East Germans – “the lives of others” is just that: not us. The film’s colour palette, though subdued and drab, is richly, gorgeously so. And a key conceit of the film, that hardened ideologues will turn into humanists if only they are confronted with the great cultural heritage of Europe, is simply naïve. Though moving and well-made, The Lives of Others is fundamentally a Western film about the East, and it occupies itself with many of the West’s favorite themes: a tale about heroic dissidents, brave Western journalists, and, if you’ll forgive the phrase, the power of love.

In 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, by contrast, the power of love and friendship is as weak and conditional as it is in real life. By the end of the film, Gabita still has not said sorry to her friend. It is a mark of this film’s honesty that Otilia doesn’t even expect her to.

Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck in "The Lives of Others" (2006)
Sebastian Koch and Martina Gedeck in "The Lives of Others" (2006)

3 thoughts on “Life, the state, and a pack of Kents

  1. excellent review, Ian, congratulations

    one thing i didn’t get from watching the movie is that the abortion person is actually a doctor. come to think of it, he probably is.

  2. Thanks zamolxis. You know, now that you raise the question of whether Bebe is a real doctor or not, I cannot recall if I actually heard a line to that effect in the movie, or whether I simply assumed that he is. Is it possible that he’s a freelancer, akin (in lack of credentials, though certainly not in morals) to Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake? Perhaps you and I are right to think not: his power to intimidate, and the abject dependence of the women on his ability to help them, seem possible only on the assumption that Bebe possesses a credentialed authority.

  3. My impression when I saw the movie was that Bebe was not a doctor … but I’m not sure if there is anything in the film itself that can settle this issue.

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