Wednesday, October 10, 2007

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

That would be about 144 days, right?


Mungiu got my attention from the moment I noticed Gabita was waxing her legs. 144 days pregnant, in deep shit, therefore, and the woman was WAXING HER LEGS! I sank in my chair. This had got to be good. Her play with the stupid plasticized table cover (Oriental sounding "mushama" in Romanian, an ubiquitous object that some have come to integrate into the Romanian quirkiness of being) was also gripping. Then Otilia took over and started to show us what it meant to find your way in Communist Romania, to fly under the radar, like most people did, as it had become their second nature.

So I knew I was in for a treat if the entire movie would be generous with such insights into the darkness of Romanian communism and the curses it had bestowed on people's approach to sexuality and reproduction.

Come to think of it, the curses still exist, only they have metamorphosed. For instance, check out the reaction of some regular American fellas upon discovering "Libertatea" online. And remember that "Libertatea" is the top selling daily newspaper in Romania, at quite a distance from its "normal" follower, "Jurnalul National".

Another intriguing possibility is that these curses had less to do with communism and more with the way Romanians relate to sexuality and its...well, consequences. This may have brought them into those depths of cynicism when abortion was forbidden. The fact that a law passed there, be it by the Communists, restricted both contraceptive methods and abortion may be an indication that all is not kosher in this domain. The brimming orphanages that brought Romania to worldwide attention may slap the same cynical accusation on Romanians. If all truth be told, even the chilling statistics showing that so many women still consider abortion an OK contraceptive method in that country deserves its own movie, but hey, that would be even more painful to watch, right?

Yes, it is a movie about how cynical people can become. True, the system has its part in it. But then again, it takes people to build the system, etc. And people who think they can mess with entire communities' bodies and life-giving decisions grow everywhere, even as we speak, right? Which gives this movie its instant and indisputable universal appeal. It cuts to the bone, it goes where no movie has gone before, it takes upon itself to show us a story about abortion as up close and personal as it can get (while still keeping its PG ratings, and this is, I think, why the camera stops following Otilia, for the first and only time during the movie, and sticks demurely with Gabita during the sex scene between Otilia and Bebe)

They say that Bebe was a monster in the movie. He could have been tons more monstrous. For instance, he was downright considerate when he chose to have sex with each of the women, I mean, separately. I disagree with CTP's assessment that "a nice looking fellow" like Bebe could have found willing sexual partners for a fistful of lei in any student dorm. I don't know where he got that from, he is way too jaded! But indeed, the enticement could have been a lot more serious had he gone to the bottom of male fantasies on the subject. Maybe the real life Bebe had, back then, who knows... But what would have Mutu's camera done in that case? Good point. And how about the ratings? Okay...

To me, the biggest, most offensive monster was off-screen, all the time, and was never even referred to. He was the Unspeakable, Unmentionable one. Very cool. I refer, of course, to the co-author of Gabita's pregnancy. Now, if he were "unknown", that would shorten the distance between him and the occupant of the second place in monstruosity, Gabita herself. But she was the empathetic kind, a female Hannibal, minus the intelligence. Then came Mr. Bebe, a monster by vocation and choice, and finally Otilia, who was initiated to being a monster during the events pictured. We could safely state that this is the theme of the movie -- how a woman is turned into a monster, slowly but surely, given the "right" constraints and a series of choices "between two evils" she needs to assume.

I'm sick of hearing everyone what a hero Otilia was and how grand her gesture, her self-sacrifice. She was a flawed human being herself. She couldn't have been otherwise, monsters need soft moral tissue to develop... But we can't help but empathize with her because of her good side, as she is so selflessly taking action to help out her friend in need.

She's a great main character, that I'll give her. However, she DID HAVE CHOICES when it came right down to the aforesaid sacrifice. Mungiu didn't close off her every exit, and he didn't because he obviously couldn't have. Yes, they had paid in advance some nights at the hotel, so money would have been lost there. Not a great fortune, but a considerable amount, let's say, the amount a Romanian student would have needed for food for a month, back then. There WERE other possibilities to be explored in terms of potential abortionists -- not to mention the idea that the pregnancy should have been kept at that point, never mind that... Otilia, finding out herself under pressure about the real advancement of the pregnancy, doesn't even think to ask -- "Hey, are you sure?". However, she does decide to commit "the sacrifice".

Hers was therefore a cold and calculated management decision. Otilia struck me as a great manager, by the way. She is DRIVEN. We like these people in today's pressed for time world. She takes action. She is astute, too, as she negotiates the hotel room, her way out of the bus crisis. (By the way, why be dishonest there? I told you, she's not perfect. Bus tickets cost next to nothing back then and students had reduced fares, etc. Busted, Otilia!) She tries telling Mr. Bebe that she is having her period to extract herself from the situation. However, she might have told the truth there, as testified later by her boyfriend, Monster No.5, who had not protected her during their latest lovemaking session, even under the "menace" of fertility... Which makes Otilia safe from "perpetuating the cycle of unwanted childbearing" by saying yes to Bebe, with a chance of having been already pregnant by her boyfriend. So it was, after all, the immediate way out (and time was of the essence) IF ONE COULD LIVE WITH IT.

Thus, Otilia chooses to prostitute herself to minimize the hassle and improve the chances of success of the task at hand, which is helping Gabita get rid of her unwanted pregnancy. Her management abilities combined with an openness to moral compromise (undoubtedly honed by the system) pushed her to this NON-OBLIGATORY decision.

It's all relative, some people sleep their way to the top of corporate ladders, or to get a part in a movie, so this is quite heroic, by comparison, right?

Once you accept that, it's all good. The movie, I mean. But if you insist to imagine Otilia as a saintly, perfect woman, all dedicated to her friendship with the moronic Gabita, well, then good luck suspending your disbelief, because you'd have to...

In conclusion, this is a genre movie, a monster movie, with suspense and all that. :) Seriously now, in spirit and emotions stirred, it is the absolute opposite of a romantic comedy, if you will. A "romcom", as in "ROManian COMmunism" horror... It's also a "buddy love" act, with a hint of "dude in trouble". Well done!

Yes, it made me think about things. Yes, I applaud it and the scandal/discussions it aroused.

But when I came out of the cinema hall, I envied the people who were in line to see "The Bourne Etc."

"432" is not entertainment, it's truth and pain administered via a good story. A movie one pays to suffer through, while Mungiu delivers unwanted truths about human lows. Which, at some level, turns him into a kind of Mr. Bebe...

And if you think this is a cruel joke, I say it was my tiny revenge for the extra time endured by us all in front of the screens, as this film could have been shorter by 30 minutes at least, just like its Romanian predecessor in examining human bodies and minds dishonored by cruel systems, "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" by Cristi Puiu.


Alex Leo Serban said...

I want to congratulate u for the passionate comment on '432': indeed, what u said about it being truth vs entertainment is very... well, true (incidentally, i had a talk @ the univ of pittsburgh just yesterday & made exactly the same remark about what singles out new romanian cinema!).
But i disagree on 3 points:
1 why do u consider the father of the '432' embryo (i just can't bring myself to think of a 5 months fetus as a 'child'!) to be a 'monster'? i really don't find this to be true... he might not even KNOW about the unwanted baby OR be just plain selfish; whic is pretty common, isn't it? or else the world wd be full of 'monsters'...
2 why do u say that Otilia 'prostitutes' herself by accepting to have intercourse with Mr Bebe? I really don't see it as such either... i mean, does she get paid or what?! No she doesn't... so?
3 finally: why should u want the film to be 30 minutes shorter, if u clearly specified it's TRUTH and NOT entertainment? Yr asking for it to be 'shorter' stems, i'm afraid, from a hollywood-prone mentality ;-)

Maurice said...

Ops, sorry, I haven't been checking up on my comments lately, didn't imagine how anyone could ADD to this! ;)

Except for myself, I keep thinking about this darn movie. I even wanted to post again on its subject, but I'll write a book instead. Just kidding.

1. You say men who impregnate and don't even know it don't qualify as "monsters". I think that, in the respective day and age, they did. If casual, unprotected sex is no longer on the acceptable behavior menu, you give it up and share the burden with the women of that world. Something which tons of Romanian males weren't up to. So we had all those orphanages full of unwanted babies, those garbage bins full of foetuses and those cemeteries full of women trying to not become moms. But who faced those truths? Life went on, pants went down, reproductive instincts took their toll -- and while some of the boys did do "the right thing", way too many didn't.

Mungiu's movie is about the essential loneliness of women when faced with pregnancy. Its essence is given in that exchange between Otilia and her boyfriend, their quarrel ending with "Gabita, as she is, would be there for me!" Men need an effort to connect and understand women at that level -- which they didn't do, not back then, not back there -- so many, too many women were failed when it mattered most! The sheer consequences of these failures made monsters out of the males in those equations.

You seem to consider that "being plain selfish" when you leave someone pregnant is acceptable behavior. Seeing the woman through her ordeal is the least that can be expected. The mark of humanity -- hence, monsterhood again.

2. You say that Otilia did not prostitute herself when having intercourse with Bebe. But sex for anything other than pleasure is prostitution, isn't it? Surely you didn't mean that she fancied Bebe at that moment, did you?

She didn't get money, but she did help her friend save some cash. How is that not a financial gain? What she did was consensual intercourse with a stranger for a benefit other than personal pleasure. I've heard some call it "rape". No way! They both had free will and used it. They traded sex for a surgical intervention that could have easily amounted to homicide. While some would have called that potential outcome a double homicide.

3. That particular portion of truth could have lasted 30 minutes less. Those minutes were redundant, stolen out of our lives. It was the same truth, repeated over and over, painfully and needlessly so, just like here.

Not that there's something wrong with Hollywood, anyway... :P

Anonymous said...

I read this post before I had seen the movie and ever since wanted so badly to see that movie that had given you so much to write about. Agree with you on every point you make.
Now I have finally seen the movie in a movie theater in Seattle in the midst of a horrified, unsympathetic audience. You make excellent points about the pro-abortionist, egotistical culture of our native country. How did we get here? I still remember my Am. friends questions: Why did they, both Gabita and Otilia, never considered just having the baby? To which I did not have a more convenient answer then: It's a cultural thing. It's hard to explain... Lumi, Seattle

mimi said...

Very impressive comment, UberK, though, what if you changed perspective and placed those monsters next to the ones possibly populating a movie like "No Country for Old Men"?

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid I don't fully agree with you on this one. This was so close to being a great movie I think it's really a shame. Several griefs from me:
- the whole setup was utterly unbelivable: no woman in her right mind would ever go to a hotel to have an abortion: hotels were infested with Securitate and guest lists were sent to the Militia. So the ladies had a student room for themselves (which was the most liberal environment they would have chosen any time) and yet they go to a Bucharest hotel to do the thingy? They wouldn't even be allowed in as they had a Bucharest visa on their IDs (few of us remember that). So was the whole hotel scene added just to serve narative purposes (having a stake, a bit of money, to lose if the things didn't happen on that day) or because Mungiu had thought of a cool dialogue with the hotel receptionist? OK, most of viewers will not know the difference so I may be too old but hey…
- by the end of the movie I got really sick and tired of all the red herrings abandoned all over the place: the table cloth, the father, Bebe's ID, the pocket knife… Mungiu, if you think this is cool, well, think again. You fool me once, shame on me… One is cool, but many red herrings rotting in your film no longer look cool but sloppy.
- no mention about the (known or unknown) father makes Gabi more of a monster than she needs to be. Seems to me that Mungiu simply didn't bother to through in a one-liner;
- many good moments but the decisive moment was completely blotched: In the door frame, Gabitza says "I'll do it, but my friend has no stake in this", Bebe seems to ponder the question, he says nothing, but Otilia simply jumps in a second too early: No, sure, I'll do it too, hourraaah. Again, one extra line would have saved the day.
- too long indeed - it becomes almost didactic. Frankly, I got the message, great and all, but in the end I got bored and was not really waken up by the (rather artificial) suspense with the guy following Otilia in the dark. Less is often more and 30 minutes less could have brought this on my top 10 list for the year.