Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's harrowing film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days – winner of a Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival – centers on college student Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) trying to procure an illegal abortion with the help of her best friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) in 1987 Romania. Under Nicolae Ceausescu's repressive rule, abortion was illegal under almost every circumstance. The effect of that social policy on real women helps fuel the edge-of-your-seat tension of this drama. Mungiu took time to speak to Creative Loafing from Bucharest in this e-mail exchange.
The ordeals these women have to go through to obtain an abortion seem in some way a statement about how difficult life in Ceausescu's Romania was. Life itself was a daily struggle populated with bureaucrats and officious hotel clerks. Is the film about bureaucracy to some extent?
The film has a lot of layers. Before being about bureaucracy it is, for me, rather a film about decision making and the necessity of taking responsibility for your decisions in life, about compromise, about solidarity and friendship, about social classes. The film tries to make the spectator experience the fear and gloominess of living under communism by rendering the atmosphere of the times, not by giving too much information about the period itself. Still, the film is first of all about these characters and not about the period.
Did you make this film as a political point, to remind people of this dark time in Romanian history?
I made this film because I thought it's a story worth telling about a matter that I consider being important and on which we should all have a clear opinion once we understand all consequences of our decisions.
How much of a difference did winning the Palme d'Or make in people's interest in the film? Does it bother you that your film did not receive an Oscar nomination? Or are the Academy Awards not really a measure of success for you?
A Palme d'Or makes all the difference – for an author it is the supreme professional award you can wish for. Due to the Palme d'Or, the film was sold to more than 60 territories and gained, so far, more than 7 million USD while the production budget barely reached 1 million. More than the figures, the prestige of this award makes you feel respected everywhere you go. I respect the Oscars, as they are by far the most well-known film award in the world, and getting an Oscar would have probably made a lot of people curious to go and see the film. If I knew the decision about my film represents the taste of the Academy members, I wouldn't regret anything – I would accept they have a different idea about filmmaking than mine – but I wonder if the group picking out the nine films is representative for the Academy members.
You have said your film is not a film about abortion. Can you explain that statement?
I believe that all films that are about "something" tend to become very didactic and demonstrative. My films are about life – with its complexity, imprecision, relativity. This is a film about my 20s, speaking about the period, about my generation of people – the greatest in the history of Romania due to Ceausescu's law that forbid abortion and all kinds of contraception in 1966 – about life, death and children.
There is so much time spent in the film doing things like buying a pack of cigarettes or arranging a hotel room. Were you conscious of just trying to realistically capture Romania circa 1987, or were you trying for something more: to show people outside Romania how difficult life could be there?
It's a different approach about cinema: We don't make films for a profit; we tell stories that respect the truth about life as it was. I was trying to capture life with all its details, as I believe the first step in making a bad film is in deciding only to show what's "important."
You've said that rather than having other films in your mind when you are making a film, you like to draw from life. Can you talk about the techniques you use to translate life's realism to film?
I only preserve in the story facts that are plausible and I avoid spectacular effects. I write the most natural, average dialogue possible for the actors, avoiding all comments of mine as an author and respecting the natural flow of conversation people have in real-life conversations, I don't abuse conventional directorial means as music or editing as they represent your choices as a director and not needs coming from the story itself – generally speaking, I am trying to make myself as a filmmaker as little visible as possible and to allow the story to unfold without my comments in front of the spectators.
How did the story start? It was inspired by a story a woman told you a decade ago – but why did you want to tell that story now?
Because abortion was illegal in Romania from 1966 till the fall of communism in 1989, some half a million women died in the process of having illegal abortions. After 1990, after abortion was legalized again, Romania started having nearly one million abortions a year for a population of some 10 million women – so I thought that this story speaks about how not having freedom or abusing it for lack of knowledge could pretty much lead you in the same direction. When I start writing a new screenplay, I ask myself which is the thing concerning me the most, and that becomes the topic of my next film.
Is there such a thing as a Romanian New Wave? If you think there is, what unites films like yours or Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 East of Bucharest in your mind?
There is a wave of successful films and there are several very powerful directors, but they are not part of a school or movement respecting some imposed principles about cinema. We are perceived as a generation because we're all filmmakers in our late 30s and got international recognition somehow at the same time due to the Cannes Film Festival, but actually our ideas about cinema differ quite a lot and the films we make are different as well.
How well do you remember Ceausescu's time in power? What kind of an impact did Ceausescu's policies have on you personally?
I remember things in detail – I didn't need to research too much about the period. The impact is more visible in small, less important things – for example, I still carry an ID with me all the time, even today – and less visible in more profound things: I developed a certain antipathy versus, I can't stand to be told what to do, you can't fool me easily and please don't tell me communism has good parts.
The way you tell the story is very interesting. Rather than the woman, Gabita, having the abortion, it is her friend Otilia who is the focus of the story. Why did you decide to focus on Otilia?
It is obvious that from the two girls Otilia is the one that is going to be different at the end of the day. In my films I am interested in showing the effect of the facts on people, not the facts. A lot of people experience this film as a thriller although all I use to create the suspense are their expectations from seeing too many mainstream films.
The character of Mr. Bebe, the illegal abortionist, was horrifying and seemed to me to express how badly women fared, how easily their sexuality was exploited under Ceausescu. Can you talk about what Bebe represents for you?
Up to a certain extent he speaks about how in an abusing system, people tended to abuse the others as a form of getting even with the system. But in my kind of filmmaking things don't "represent" other things – my belief is that if you manage to respect the complexity of life and be truthful in every moment of your storytelling, your film is going to benefit from this complexity and will be understood by people in accordance with their knowledge and beliefs.