All eyes on the December children
Romania is emerging from the chaotic aftermath of communism to shake up the world of film. By Jan Schulz-Ojala
Revolutions in the cinema seldom need the masses. Four or five names usually suffice; they come together when the benevolent film god focusses on a particular place at a particular time and in a blinking of an eye the screen world is a new one. In the late fifties of the last century a few prominent French film critics decided to try out things behind the camera and bada bing, the Nouvelle Vague was born. In the mid-nineties a few boisterous Danes wrote a seemingly ascetic manifesto and suddenly all other films looked like they were under a thick layer of dust compared with the Dogma productions. For a decade now the clear, stringent language of a handful of German directors has challenged the ubiquitous noise cinema and by now they are happy to be counted as part of the prestigious "Berlin School", a name they didn't coin for themselves.
Sometimes it is a central aesthetic concept which unites these small groups of extreme individualists; sometimes it's the weight of historical circumstance. The handful of Romanian directors who are now causing a stir in international auteur cinema, belong to a generation of 30 and 40-somethings who grew up under Ceaucescu but were not broken by him. The decline of the Romanian film industry – in the year 2000 not a single film was made there – was something they all witnessed while still in school. But in the last few years they have cranked up the country's film funding apparatus again and attracted the world's attention by winning international prizes.
In particular the ever innovative Cannes festival paved the way for the success of Catalin Mitulescu, Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu and Cristian Mungiu. And this year an uninterrupted stream of short and debut film prizes followed the first Golden Palm ever awarded to a Romanian director. Cristian Mungiu accepted it with the beatified words that you "need neither a big budget nor big stars to tell a story the world wants to hear."
These new filmmakers call themselves – in reference to the fall of Ceaucescu in December 1989 – "December children." And unlike old masters such as Lucian Pintilie, who has lived in exile in France for so long that Romania might as well be Absurdistan to him, or Radu Mihaileanu ("Train of Life") another emigrant to France, they make realistic cinema albeit with a satirical twist – testaments to a lively confrontation with the past that double as imposing critiques of the present.
In "12:08 East of Bucharest" (2006) Corneliu Porumboiu has three provincial souls deliberate on a bizarre talkshow over "whether the revolution ever took place outside Bucharest"; in "The Death of Mister Lazarescu" (2005) Cristi Puiu traces the final odyssey of an old man through the hospitals of the capital; and in Cristian Nemescu's "California Dreamin'" (2007) set during the Kosovo war, village inhabitants pull out all the hospitality stops for a company of US soldiers stranded in their railway station, right the way through to the bitter, blood-spattered end.
Cristian Mungiu gives a wide berth - perhaps this is what sealed his success at Cannes - to all export-friendly items such as humour and fantasy with which Eastern Europeans have traditionally flavoured their former circumstances to make them internationally palatable. "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" is a chronological description of a day and a long evening, almost in real time, using long, scene-length shots. It is the story of the lead-up to, execution and aftermath of a secret abortion in a small town in Romania in 1987. The only touch of irony comes in the titles at the end which announces that the film is the first of a trilogy of "Stories from Golden Age" in which Mungiu will describe everyday life under Ceaucescu.
The dictator ushered in the golden age of the breeding machine in the early days of his rule in 1966 with "Decree 770", a law so hated that it was abolished immediately after his fall. In order to mass produce communist offspring, women under 40 with less than four children faced stiff prison sentences for having abortions. The birth rate soared initially - indeed Mungiu who was born in 1968 is one of the "decreed" - but soon the number of terminations started rising dramatically. As a result, thousands of women are estimated to have died in the course of the years.
Mungiu's film never bangs a drum about this; his film functions for the viewer without any background knowledge. With absolute historical precision, and at the same time extreme aesthetic reduction, he shows the gauchely nervous Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and her vigilant room mate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) preparing for the abortion in a hotel room; the "angel maker" (Vlad Ivanov) they pay to carry it out taking financial and sexual advantage of their plight; and the two young women attempting to deal with the layers of physical and psychological trauma once it's all over.
Packing their things together in their student accommodation, searching for a hotel room where the women at the reception are the horribly perfect embodiment of socialist non-service, the first cool words with the abortionist in the car, the negotiations with him which start off quietly and quickly escalate into a fracas, and later Otilia's final duty of friendship where she hastily dispenses with the foetus in the night. All this is dealt with in a few pithy scenes where the hand-held camera is permitted a minimal tremor at most, however long it concentrates on one thing. But there is a tremor, right from the start.
Only once does the camera (Oleg Mutu) give way to what one might call the lust for spectacle. It shows us for a matter of seconds only, the dead foetus, wrapped in blood-stained towels. But it would be quite wrong to cast "4 months...." as an anti-abortion film. Mungiu's film never judges; it soberly recounts the total contamination of everyday life through the abuse of power, while cleverly avoiding anything directly political. It is a fact that the ban on abortion delivered hundreds of thousands of women into the hands of such mini-dictators of the moment. The criminality of the system was recognisable even its most distorted manifestations.
The nightmare is over, the big one and the little one. Today Romania's abortion laws are among the most liberal in the world. After all the confusion that followed the end of communism, the country may have no more than 35 cinemas – but such things are irrelevant when its young directors are so capable of helping themselves. As the founder of Mobra Films, Cristian Mungiu is his own producer. And now his moving, brilliantly acted film, in which every one of its 113 minutes is gripping, is currently touring the cinemaless cities of his home country in a caravan rigged up with a projector. And little by little his ticket sales are nearing the million mark.