An Interview With 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Writer/Director Cristian Mungiu
Ever since 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palm d'Or at Cannes 2007, Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu and his movie have racked up numerous festival accolades, rankings on year-end best-of lists, and awards and nominations--not an Oscar nom, though--en route to being hailed as the latest entry in the so-called new wave of Romanian filmmaking. New York Times critic A.O. Scott spoke with Mungiu in his lengthy investigation into contemporary Romanian filmmaking in a Jan. 20 Sunday magazine cover story. Romanian movies have become what Korean movies were a few years ago--the in-the-know next big thing.
Mungiu's movie is both blessed and cursed to reach the U.S. recently. The unflinchingly sober look at one university-aged woman helping a friend obtain an illegal abortion in 1987 Romania, 4 Months arrives in theaters at the tail end of a cinema year in which American movies such as Waitress, Knocked Up, and Juno follow young pregnant women who don't even consider abortion an option. The deluge of Hollywood abortion ban columns was a bit of an argumentative stretch--as usual, the Village Voice's J. Hoberman lodges the more potent political discussion--but it is a measure of just how under fire Roe vs. Wade is if American movie critics are using the pure fantasy of Juno as a platform to remind readers of a woman's right to choose. As Mungiu explains over the phone from Bucharest, 4 Months isn't an abortion movie, though--although he did wish that his home country responded to it as politically minded as almost every other country has.
City Paper: In America your movie is being reduced to the "Romanian abortion movie," but although the story involves an abortion, it feels to be less about abortion than a very specific time and place.
Cristian Mungiu: I absolutely agree with you that it's not only about abortion. This was not the way it started. First of all, what I wanted was to tell a story about how we used to live in our 20s. It was a very personal story for me and a very personal approach, honestly. So this is what I wanted to do, and it wasn't necessarily only focused on the period and on the political background. It's still a story about these characters, but it tells a lot about Romanian society in that period and about mentalities and about decision-making and about a lot of things having to do with living under communism.
CP: Did you have to do much research to re-create the time period?
CM: I did some research just to make sure, for example, all the details regarding the abortion itself were precise. But apart from this I just stuck to the original story that I knew. As you know, this is a true story that somebody that I really knew very well told me directly, one of the girls that have been involved in these illegal abortions. So I basically didn't need to research too much because I wanted to stick to the story that I knew best and to respect the crucial points in the narrative from that story and all the emotions. For me it was important to respect the atmosphere of the period, not the details. And as you notice in the film, I avoid to position the situation very precisely by using words like "communism" or "comrade" or anything like that. It was important for me to be truthful to what every character needs to do in the film.
CP: So people didn't talk like that under communism as we've seen in so many movies before?
CM: It's very cliché to establish the period by introducing words like this into characters lines, and I don't want to use this.
CP: Why does the main character keep searching for Kent cigarettes in the beginning? Were they considered a luxury brand at the time--like a status symbol?
CM:Absolutely. It was really more than this. Basically it was something very social about the cigarette. There were only three or four brands of cigarettes on the black market, which were brought by foreign students, that you could afford to buy from them. And these cigarettes were representing your social ability, being able to pay for the service that you were asking for. It's much more than the cigarettes. It was a habit, and anybody who needed anything like a doctor knew that he needed to have such a pack of cigarettes. Why Kent? This is difficult to say, probably because we're talking about very white cigarettes and they look more aristocratic than regular cigarettes.
CP: Is that something that a Romanian audience would understand immediately?
CM: Yes, absolutely. It positions the situation and the period, and people know exactly that we associate that period when we see these kinds of things.
CP: What else would a Romanian audience might notice in the movie that an American audience might not?
CM: There's a bus in the film that you'll notice at some point. And there were two huge cylinders that looked like bombs on the bus. And that was happening in the last years of communism when the country was out of gasoline, so they invented buses that ran with regular [natural] gas--butane. And for this they invented these huge cylinders, which were on top of buses, and this created in the period a lot of jokes about buses that ran with bombs and a lot of things like that. There are several other things in the film that are relevant not just for Romanian audiences but for Eastern European audiences, because a lot of things were common for all the East.
CP: You shot in wide-screen format and with a sometimes moving but not Steadicam camera. Was that an aesthetic choice or did it have a psychological element?
CM: First of all what we wanted was to make sure this film tells the story of these two characters, but at the same time you get a glimpse of that period through the atmosphere. This is why we decided to go with the wide screen, so that you have in front all the time the characters, but still the background is wide enough and tells a lot of things about the period. At the same time, we decided that we wanted to have a camera that would follow the state of mind of the main character. And this is to say at the beginning of the film, in the first, let's say, 30-40 minutes when the situation is calmer, the camera tends to stay still. While in the second part of the film the camera is more agitated, trying to follow what the main character experiences. And this was very effective, actually.
CP: Your movie has sparked a great deal of discussion, at least in North America, about its subject matter and even the current state of Romanian filmmaking. Do you feel like there's anything that is being overlooked with such a focus on these two things?
CM: I'm a little bit disappointed, actually, with the kind of reaction I had in Romania with the film, to be honest, because everybody was so happy with the public success of the film and with all the awards that the film got that it didn't really create too much of a debate about abortion. It created much more debate about abortion in all the countries where it's been screened, but not in Romania. In Romania it was seen as a--I don't know--a national cultural success, and somehow this turned against the film. It was very popular, but it didn't create a social public debate about this.
CP: So the movie did do well in Romania? I ask because I never know how critically adored foreign movies in American do in their home countries. I'm always reminded of a conversation I had with a man from Mumbai who told me that only Westerners love the movies of Satyajit Ray, and that people in India actually watch Bollywood movies
CM: Oh no, it was well seen. For example, I think more people went to see this film in Romania than people went to see Ratatouille, which is still mainstream here and very, very popular.
CP: Has this recent acclaim for and attention on Romania filmmaking had any effect on the filmmaking industry of Romania, in either financing or production? Or is it still too soon to tell?
CM: Not directly. There's a kind of pressure on the people that decide which projects are going to be financed, because we work in a system in which the state is involved. And because of these successes, for example, it's very difficult not to finance these people who were successful recently. But we work with the same kind of very low budgets, and at the same time there was no special kind of measure taking neither after the Cannes award for this generation of filmmakers. So there is a lot of acclaim, and everybody is very happy that there is something representing Romania very well abroad, but this was not necessarily followed by any special measures encouraging this for the years to come.
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