Beyond the Hills: Offscreen Cinema
By Doru Pop
Deep into Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, we sit in on a leisurely dinner-table chat that appears to be unrelated to the film’s main event, an illegal abortion conducted in a seedy hotel. After shepherding her pregnant roommate through a procedure that proved all kinds of harrowing, a young Romanian college student named Otilia, superbly played by Anamaria Marinca, has left her friend to recover and dashed to a birthday party in honor of her boyfriend’s mother.
There the camera fastens on Otilia and stays there, in one of the movie’s many contemplative long takes. The young woman sits in near silence, squashed between celebrants and increasingly agitated as chatter flows around her about the costs and benefits of college and compulsory army service, the decline in church attendance, the pampered youth of today, the proper cooking of potatoes. Her well-heeled fellow dinner guests are friendly but too complacent and self-involved to notice the gulf that has opened between them and Otilia, who comes from a rural working-class family. Hold that thought: money, or its absence, has a hand in Otilia’s plight, but it’s not the immediate source of her desperate sense of entrapment.
The year is 1987, so we might read this digressive sequence as exposition sketching a country soldiering through the last gasp of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s über-Soviet iron rule. Perhaps the prattle is Mungiu’s sly dig at the smug bourgeoisie who sprang up after the fall of Ceaușescu in 1989. But allegory is not the director’s game—or if it is, he wants us to connect the dots while he stays close to the ground of an almost fanatically specific story, told within the compressed frame of a single day.
Unable to communicate her pain to her clueless boyfriend, Otilia rushes back to the hotel room, where earlier she was forced into an appalling act of self-sacrifice. The trauma opened her eyes to a double betrayal, on the one hand from an unscrupulous stranger and on the other from the ditzy friend, Găbiţa (Laura Vasiliu), for whom she has already risked so much, given that abortion was completely illegal under Ceaușescu’s rule for young, childless women (exceptions were made for those over forty-five and those who already had five children). Găbiţa’s paralysis has plunged both women into a cascade of horrifying bargains that cut way deeper than the abortion itself, the depiction of which is as graphic and disturbing as it needs to be given that the young woman has lied about how far along she is in her pregnancy.
“The movie sheds its secrets slowly; if you’re paying attention, its tiny but telling details and elisions tell a bigger story.”
“Mistrust lodges itself deep within the psyche, forcing friends and lovers to treat one another with the same suspicion they would a stranger.”
The fourth of Andrei Tarkovsky’s seven features is his most oneiric and resistant to interpretation, drawing from the director’s own childhood memories to create a fluid sense of history.
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