JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

copyright 2009, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 51, spring 2009

The cold world behind the window:
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
and Romanian cinema’s return
to real-existing communism

by Constantin Parvulescu

On November 12, 2006, the French Press Agency (AFP) informed the world that Bulgaria was catching up with the rest of the former Soviet Bloc states and was opening a large-scale exhibit on everyday life under communism. According to AFP, all other former communist countries had already consecrated such sites of memory. Bulgaria, it seemed, was the last. Germany set the trend. The former German Democratic Republic became the state most rapidly integrated—politically and economically, if not culturally—into the capitalist order. As a reaction to its quick disappearance, an ostalgia[1][open endnotes in new window] culture flourished in Germany’s eastern provinces and spread, shadowing “European integration,” first through Central Europe and then to the South East, in countries like Romania and Bulgaria. It followed a wave of Euro-enthusiasm and public rituals of “looking back in anger,” and marked the need to cast a different look at the pre-1989 era, a need arising, not coincidentally, after registering the full social and intellectual impact of “real-existing capitalism.”

The emergence and success of these exhibits on everyday life during communism—be they virtual or museum-based, state-sponsored or European-Union-funded—marked a turn in the way in which former Soviet satellites dealt with the past. The exhibits were preceded by (and often ran in parallel to) two other kinds of shows. One group aimed at emphasizing the European (Western) “vocation” of Eastern European culture/ history/ politics, and regarded the post-WWII communist period as an historical hiatus. The other group memorialized the crimes of communism, working to identify and celebrate anti-communism’s heroes, battlefields and victims.

Besides marking the effort to recuperate marginalized aspects of history, the return to the everyday was also an act of revaluation. The implicit goal here was to discover moments of happiness and dignity in the ashes of a politically and economically rejected past, and to bring some color or cast a good-old-days smile, as the AFP report informed its readers, at the nation’s experiences. The shows understood themselves as a corrective against public practices of national soul searching. A too gray image of the days gone by, engendered by previous anti-communist exhibits, needed merriment. A too politicized look needed a chill out. Social relationships, in particular, had to be reinvestigated, and such a reassessment had to start not from above, the site of moral judgment, but from below, from the materiality of the objects this disappearing culture left behind.

The French Press Agency labeled the Bulgarian exhibit in Sofia, "An Inventory Storehouse of Socialism." The show’s curator, Georgy Gospodinov, explained the change of course in his country's politics of remembering:

“Apart from the political, pathetic talk about communism, we have tried to show that there are also the everyday stories, the shared memories of the people, as well as many traces, remnants of the communist time still present today as part of our lives.”[2]

Such a change in tone was not an isolated event of the post-1989 experience. The way in which exhibits and memorial sites shifted focus from remembering the tragic and the exceptional to the mundane and the ordinary mirrored shifts in historical discourse, the arts, and, indeed, in cinema.

After an initial concern with strong contrasts, tough and allegedly uncompromising moral scrutiny, post-1989 Eastern European cinema toned down its rhetoric. This phenomenon was especially manifest in Romanian productions, which will be the focus of this essay. Whereas the Romanian cinema of the 1990s was a cinema of tragic satires, intense verbal and visual violence, and political allegories, the hiatus of the year 2000, the “anno zero” of Romanian film (in which no film was produced), brought into theaters features about everyday life. These films deftly balanced suffering and nostalgia, squalor and dignity, synthesizing the messages of the previous generation of films and the type of ostalgia expressed in exhibits like the one Gospodinov curated. Films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007) or The Way I Spent the End of The World (Catalin Mitulescu, 2006) aimed at a material recuperation of temps perdu, a rebutted world, ethically, politically and intellectually assigned to the trashcan of history. These films remembered, but without falling prey to uncritical nostalgia. They considered oppression, but no longer directly linked it to government practices and to its leaders. Cinema was now focusing on oppression’s spectral dimension—still “there” but harder to pin down in the recesses of everyday behavior.

Compared to Romanian productions of the 1990s, the new films narrated in a less demonstrative way, employing a wider spectrum of grays (or color) in their moral judgment of the past. The films of the 1990s—The Oak (Lucian Pintilie, 1992), Luxury Hotel (Dan Pita, 1992), The Earth’s Most Beloved Son (Serban Marinescu, 1993), and The Conjugal Bed (Mircea Daneliuc, 1993)—offered angry denunciations, concerned with the perversion of basic human values. Their anger was legitimate; people had had an horrendous life under Ceausescu. But this anger was also troubling. Not only did these films rely on an uncritical anticommunism and indiscriminate condemnation, but their effort to unravel the violence and perversion at the core of the Ceausescu era turned them into sadomasochistic orgies. Putting abuse on record engendered an uncanny fascination with perverse apparatchiks, secret police thugs and domestic tyrants who gave a face to oppression.

Responding to this cinematic trend, the most successful Romanian film of the 2000s, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, provides an astute balance of ostalgia and anti-communist memorial.[3] While in the 1990s films, almost every memory of the communist world seems grotesquely perverted and becomes an object of ridicule, 4 Months... starts by depicting a corner of this world as an oasis of human dignity. In its initial sequences, a certain nostalgic gaze surveys sets, objects, and characters. An initial positive layer of memory is then overwritten by a more problematic gestalt of real-existing communism. But 4 Months... never comes close to the indignation of the 1990s. A more pensive, less virulent reflection on the past characterizes its narrative, facilitated not only by the increased temporal distance form the Ceausescu era, but also by the awareness that to accuse is to excuse. Black and white incrimination of a perpetrator is always accompanied by an act of forgetting one’s own complicity.

4 Months...’ picture of the 1980s is less judgmental, making it more difficult for the audience to engage in an act of collective condemnation and forgetting. The film shares its ethical minimalism with other features of the period—The Way I Spent the End of the World and The Paper Will Be Blue (Radu Muntean, 2006). Their loose, open-ended, almost realist-Zavattinian plotlines[4] suggest no urgent desire to formulate a theodicy. They narrate with a clear awareness of the moment of enunciation, its limitations and interests. They opt for minimalism, understanding that the ultimate story about communism is forged in the hegemonic political patterns of the present.

Following this awareness, these films narrow their scope. Time span and depth of incursion shrink. 4 Months... and The Paper Will Be Blue’s plots unfold in one day. They adopt a Zavattinian-like prescription and depict the life of an ordinary person, telling a “found” story.[5] If they are unfaithful to this prescription and venture into the past, they do not go deep. The Paper Will Be Blue and The Way I Spent the End of the World are set in 1989; 4 Months... in 1987.

4 Months..., The Way I Spent the End of the World and The Paper Will Be Blue are preceded by or released at the same time as a series of other films set in the Romanian present and strongly grounded in realist poetics: Nae Caranfil’s Philantropy (2002), Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) and Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (2007).

Mungiu himself started his career with a brilliant tragicomedy, Occident (2002), about post-1989 Romania. The films set in the present share the minimalism, the microhistorical approach and the awareness of the moment of enunciation with those that situate their plots in the past. The former, however, narrate with the assumption that the past informs our understanding of the present, while the latter thematize the act of “looking back.”[6] Past and present are in a dialectical relation. One is recuperated via a narrative that responds to present-day concerns; the other has a porous texture permeated by a past that refuses to allow itself to be forgotten.

12:08 East of Bucharest (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2006), set in the present, has a plot revolving around the effort to reconstruct an event in the past, and it can be regarded as a mediator between these other films, and even as a manifesto of this generation of filmmakers’ poetics of looking back. 12:08 East of Bucharest problematizes the workings of memory, rendering visible the difficulties inherent to the project of tracing the story of “what really happened.” Set in post-1989 Romania, it reenacts a TV talk show whose aim is to reconstitute a historical truth. What happened in Vaslui’s central square (a city located north-east of Bucharest) at 12:08 pm on December 22, 1989, on the last day of the Ceausescu regime? Did the people who are now considered the heroes of the “anti-communist revolution” demonstrate before or after the dictator relinquished power in Bucharest? The truth cannot be established. The film puts on display the biased and biasing act of looking back. Different people with different backgrounds recount different stories. There is no convergence of opinion. Every voice constructs the event in its own way, and “facts” lose their self-evidence. 12:08, December 22 proves to be, as Hayden White puts is, a “(post)modernist event,” in which facts become nothing more than a function of narration.[7] Who is telling the story, when, and how are all critical to the reconstruction of “what really happened.”

4 Months...’ realism integrates the historiographical questions raised by 12:08 East of Bucharest and regards the past as constructed in the act of narration. Besides narrowing its scope and mainly narrating from the perspective of a single character, 4 Months... employs a series of self-reflexive tropes to remind the viewer that the ontological claim of its representation is limited. What we see and hear is nothing more than an artifact—however, one that strives for objectivity. Compared to a film set in the present that aimed to be a realist account of the last day in the life of an ordinary man with an ordinary name dying an ordinary death in an ordinary hospital—The Death of Mr. Lazarescu4 Months... shows an increased awareness of its mediating practices. Both films convey a sense of confidence in the documentary power of the camera, but The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, in its contemporaneity, is closer to Zavattinian-style, neorealist transparency. Set in the past, 4 Months... is more cautious, more aware that realism and transparency are possible only insofar as their limitations are acknowledged.[8] Its cinematography inscribes an awareness of the medium’s boundaries within the cinematic visual expression. It achieves this by a framing technique that both makes the limits of representation visible and constructs the film’s visual universe as an object on display. This latter feature brings us back to the exhibits of the everyday. Like such exhibits, the film roots its imagery in the materiality of objects and in detailed reconstructions of interiors. The visual style and mise-en-scene draw attention to the act of viewing and to subject-object separation.

4 Months... is full of souvenirs from the late days of the Ceausescu era. The first fifteen minutes of the film reassamble with ethnological accuracy the look and atmosphere of a 1980s student dorm. We are invited to study, and, if we lived through the period, remember. The film’s long takes give us respite to scrutinize the mise-en-scene and indulge in nostalgic recollections. The camera takes us through cluttered dorm units, long and dark corridors, and shared shower rooms. We are introduced to everyday activities and to a host of products, staples of the time-period. We learn about brands of cigarettes, soaps, hairsprays, shampoos, illegal movie-renting, powder milk, instant coffee and pastry; medicine, contraceptive pills, antibiotics and painkillers; dial-pad phones; dorm furniture; and identity cards. All these objects are or could have been on display in Gospodinov’s exhibit. Cinema, of course, can do more. While not being able to bring its audience in front of the actual objects, but only in front of their traces on celluloid, it can nonetheless contextualize and document on a larger scale, represent architectural interiors and exteriors, streets, traffic, empty shop windows, and desolate public transportation. Regardless, however, of what is shown and of the accuracy of detail, the way in which the camera frames these objects always reminds us that they are on display. They emerge from the past and we view them with the limited and biasing eye of the present.

This initial nostalgic gaze will soon change. Moving away from objects, which are somewhat innocent, and from the drab but still familiar realm of the dorm, the film becomes more critical, emphasizing Henri Lefebvre’s thesis that space, social space in particular, is constructed by human relationships.[9] The initial sequences of 4 Months... depict the milieu of the dorm as a world of solidarity, a protective matrix endowed with many features of a communist utopia, where money and basic needs never seem to be a problem (problems are usually overcome by mutual help). Property has minimal value, and even though there is commerce, everyone is willing to share. However, once Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), the film’s main characters, exit this microcosm of objects/ fetishes, a different world starts to unfold. Their outside world is increasingly hostile, exploitative and less nostalgia-inducing. Mungiu’s film changes registers and puts other memorable facets of Ceausescu’s Golden Age on display, framing the utopian niche of the dorm as existing within a landscape of degraded human relationships.

The success of museum exhibits on everyday life derives from the object's fetishistic power to bring back to life safe-haven private spaces constructed by morally acceptable human relationships. Spectators in museums or movie-theaters are given an imaginary access to niche cultures and realms of solidarity that compensated for the tightly-controlled public sphere of the period. The power of Mungiu’s film rests in the fact that its narrative also convincingly depicts what happens outside of the dorm's secure space, and suggests the dialectical relation between inside and outside, that one cannot exist without another. Such a dialectical perspective corrects the museum exhibit's sometimes uncritical nostalgic gaze, at the same time as it questions the total rebuttals of the films of the 1990s. A more honest representation of the past needs to rely on an art of combining nostalgia and criticism.

The film's script offers a slow transition from the protective matrix of the dorm to the milieu of traumatic exposure. Human relationships change while characters explore intermediary spaces, in which solidarity and hostility coexist. For example, Otilia’s ride on the bus offers a glimpse of such a locus of transition, as do the university hallways, where she meets with her boyfriend, Adi (Alex Potocean).[10] On the bus, she has to avoid the humiliating experience of being caught without a ticket by overly zealous controllers, who often worked as small-time policemen. The film depicts the communist survivor’s escape strategies: Render yourself invisible. Don’t make quick moves. Pretend you’re in deep thought. Mutely ask for help, while you slowly back away toward the door and hope it will open before they reach you.

As the film advances, 4 Months... puts the 1980s' more disturbing aspects on display, focusing in particular on a certain unmistakable way in which people look and address each other. Fear and suspicion toward the other produce public space. Questionable gender dynamics and verbal violence complete the picture. An almost ontological sense of disappointment and frustration comes through, and any interaction with the other seems to start with a very clear delineation of power relations. 

Otilia’s ordeal begins on the bus, continues with the selfish rants of her boyfriend and the patronizing treatment of the older generation, and culminates in her interaction with service providers. Their demeanor becomes the ultimate proof of the collapse of the social contract in the 1980s. Nobody believes in communism any longer. The social order survives only due to habit and fear. Ceausescu’s Romania has lost its sense of history and no longer regards itself as a collective subject in quest of a common good. In contrast to the dorm's micro-social polity, the film shows only an absence of any trace of solidarity, community, or mutual respect in public space.

The family reproduces this predicament. 4 Months…’ argument against the state is also redirected here against the institution of parenthood. Not only are parents regarded as unable to connect to their children, but also as responsible for the gloomy realities in which their children are living. Otilia has promised her boyfriend Adi to go to his mother's birthday party, and has to go there shortly after she has been raped, a "detail" she does not share with Adi. The festive atmosphere in the young man’s family's more prosperous home stands in stark contrast to the unfolding tragedy in the hotel room, where Gabita is undergoing a life-threatening medical procedure. Seated at a table, surrounded by friends of the family, Otilia finds herself among people who are indifferent to her suffering, and with whom she would not be able to find a common language to discuss what she has just been through. Instead, she has to listen to their self-indulgent chatter and taste a yet another, though milder, version of the patronizing talk she has received from the service providers she has just encountered.

Mungiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu’s genius comes to the fore in this sequence. Hitchcockian suspense (created by the secret the character cannot share) and cinematography enhance the film’s social commentary. Both emphasize Otilia’s internal struggle. We expect the people around her to notice what's on her mind. They do not, and the irony is that most of the guests are part of the medical profession. Terrible things are happening, but the older generation has no clue, and 4 Months… suggests that even if they had a clue, they would refuse to acknowledge it. In Mungiu and Mutu’s transposition, parents look powerless and inclined to rationalization, thrown into the irony of double consciousness by the violence of a regime they failed to stand up to and whose not-so-innocent accomplices they are.

The episode's visual composition complements the lack of dialogue between generations. Sitting at the end of the dinner table, between Adi and his parents, Ottilia occupies the center of the frame. The other guests are mainly off screen. We hear them talk, but we rarely see their faces. We see only hands manipulating silverware or, from time to time, a head bending over a plate. Their voices seem to come from another world, from an “out there.” They are representative of an ideology to whose interpellation Otilia refuses to respond. Her disconnect suggests her solitude and lack of mutual support within the realm of the family. Furthermore, her lack of interaction with these voices “from above” shows a disconnect between “real life,” a life that hurts, and its discursive rendering in the double-consciousness idiom of real-existing communism.

*****

4 Months… is ultimately the story of two friends and a friendship. Together, Otilia and Gabita confront the social other. Gabita needs an abortion, and the state refuses to help.[11] The two young women have to rely on the services of an abortionist, offered outside the regulated territory of the law. While the encounter with other service providers within legal boundaries exposes them to the system’s hostility and corruption, the encounter with the abortionist ends in trauma. The communist state’s distrust and contempt for its citizens' basic needs (on a continuum from food and freedom of speech to contraception) is trumped by a more profound, almost ontological brutality at work beyond the realm regulated by the state. The discourtesy we see coming from hotel clerks is a far cry from the violence the two women are subjected to when in the hands of the ultimate service-provider, Mr. Bebe, the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov).[12]

Mr. Bebe is the ultimate service provider because the nature of his services and the payment he demands give him control over the most intimate aspect of women’s health. The fact that 4 Months...’ protagonists are women, women who are raped, suggests that a true history of the Ceausescu era cannot be told without including or perhaps even starting from the way in which its most vulnerable and probably most oppressed subjects have experienced abuse. The more intimate the need of real-existing communism’s subjects, it seems, the more abusive the service. This is why 4 Months... builds the space of the dorm not only around objects and solidarity, but also around its protagonists’ privacy. Besides showing objects and salvaging forgotten registers of language, Mungiu’s film puts on display, for the spectator’s voyeuristic yet supportive eye, the intimacies of a women’s world (waxing, showering, etc). Once Otilia and Gabita leave the dorm, their privacy is stripped from them. The abortionist enacts a nightmarish embodiment of such exposure. He is the ultimate other of real existing communism’s atomized society, unmasking its proximity to a contractless Hobbesian state of nature.

4 Months...’ reviews emphasize Mungiu and Mutu’s effort to offer a non-voyeuristic picture of female private activities such as grooming, sexual hygiene, and, eventually, abortion. Although a non-voyeuristic camera is an utopia, the film aims at defining a morally acceptable way of representing its characters. It does so by contrasting early glimpses of the women's lives and the pleasures those moments offer the viewer with the abortionist’s invasive utensils and a narrative about payment in rape. He demands sex as payment for doing an abortion on Gabita. In depicting these abuses, the camera rejects phallic cinematic omniscience, even as the narrative problematizes many issues around penetration itself. Visually, the film peeps into “the life of others,” but it encodes the limits of such an exploration by using a static and limited perspective. Editing is minimal and produces long takes that often do not follow action and dialogue.

The visual limit 4 Months... imposes through static cinematography takes us back to the museum exhibit, whose recuperation of the past is also limited. Through the window of the exhibit, the viewer sees a more or less authentic assemblage that comes back from history. The glass of the case serves both as an opening into the past and as boundary. It is a physical limitation that separates not only the viewer from the viewed but also the present from the past. The object on display is lifeless; it just is there, deprived of its use value and interaction with other objects in a real-life milieu. From this point of view, the exhibits are far from the everyday. They function on a precondition of symbolic violence. They abuse the object twice: once by pulling it out of history; second, by placing it in the lifeless space of the display.

The limited perspective and static nature of 4 Months...’ cinematography draws on the conventions of the exhibit and uses them to suggest our distance from the past and to point to a symbolic violence inherent in the act of representation. As film, such an incursion into the past has the power to blur some of the shortcomings of the exhibit. Its spectacular re-enactments and its ability to display temporality—a certain continuous passage of time in the past—render cinematic representation more evocative. But 4 Months... refuses to hide its conventions. On the contrary, it emphasizes them, and this emphasis is the basis of its self-reflexive realism. The audiovisual medium can vicariously reconnect us to objects, words, clothes, spaces, vistas, and inter-human relationships. However, 4 Months...’ static compositions, its alienating camera angles and long silences emphasize, like the exhibit, that the past remains secluded behind the glass surface of the exhibit window (or the lens of the camera); that it is constructed thorough fetishes and symbols, and that it is as much an enlivened presence as an absence.

The existence of a real that escapes our symbolic capturing is indexed in 4 Months... by the use of off-screen sound. As the film progresses, voices become more segregated from bodies. There is a shift of importance from the visual to the aural, from what is seen to what can only be heard, from on-screen to off-screen, from realism’s poetics of presence to the horror genre’s emphasis on absence. Otilia and Gabita’s transition from the secure, cocoon-like space of the dorm into a world that grows in hostility also involves a transition from day to night, from natural to artificial lighting, and from a full mise-en-scene to frames that are visually empty—nothing more than a play of shadows. While the film starts by depicting a cluttered environment, full of props and attention-grabbing objects, each verbally named as if labeled in an exhibit, its last scenes are narrated through non-verbal sound.

This sound-image dynamics stages a double drama. One is the obvious drama experienced by the characters, the transition, typical of a thriller or a horror diegesis, from light and security to darkness and suspense. There is, however, another drama at play, that of the visual representation of the historical event itself. The project of investigating the distressing dimension of the Ceausescu era undergoes its own crisis. Such a drama of representation is suggested by the obsessive fixation of the camera on objects and characters, encoding the uneasiness and sometimes panic caused by acknowledging an insurmountable distance between subject and object.

There are several long, static takes in 4 Months... when the camera stays fixed on Otilia, making it entirely the task of the soundtrack to reveal what is happening around her. As in an exhibit, the staring camera waits for this objectified face to trigger the magic of the fetish and bring back a totality of communicative expressiveness. But the magic is not working. We concentrate on Otilia’s face, yet a deep understanding of her tragedy escapes us. Although the film insists on visual details, their role as vehicles of the past and as links to the other is limited. Visual fixation helps us understand, but it also records, as in an Andy Warhol film, an epistemological and ontological dissolution. The object's disintegration in front of the camera and the film’s sinking into visual darkness in its final scenes remind us that even the narrow focus on a limited number of objects, a character, or a face, both produces presence and reveals absence. Regardless of the camera’s proximity to the object, the distance between the present and the past, as well as between observer and observed, cannot be overcome. The abundant off-screen sound does not compensate for this incapacity of the eye. Sound encodes the real as remainder, as haunting/spectral other, reclaiming a different kind of presence/ absence.

To give an example of this progression from visual detail to audio expression, let me consider the film's presentation of its protagonist, Otilia. Since visual fixation dismantles the psychological unity of character, what does our gaze encounter when the camera focuses on Otilia’s face? What lies beneath the narrative's apparent invitation to empathize with her mute suffering, ranging from humiliation to rape, and her terrorized and terrorizing effort to dispose of an aborted fetus? If we stare enough at her, perhaps we can apprehend something even more threatening than what her narrated experiences introduce us to. Let us recapitulate the visual development of the film: At the beginning, the visuals emphasize objects and location. The camera then turns to characters, closing in on Otilia. It focuses less on action and dialogue, and image-sound redundancy decreases. Once the fetus is expelled, the hotel's surreal, alienating lighting gives way to dark frames whose signifying power is reduced to a minimum. Otilia wanders through the urban environment to find an anonymous trash receptacle in which to dispose of Gabita's abortion. A horror-film atmosphere sets in. For a few minutes, the camera is unleashed, allowed to follow the character. The main visual signifying elements here are its jerky moves and its failed effort to produce discernable images. Otilia’s heavy breathing—voice reduced to the real of the breath—is the only signifier the film allows its viewer to hold on to. 4 Months… ends by staging an effort to return to image and voice—to presence. The camera now rests at an uncanny angle. In the post-traumatic silence of the last scene, Otilia and Gabita try to return to dialogue. But this return is no longer possible. Language has reached its limit.

The experience of rape and abortion encodes both the drama of the characters and the otherness of the world onscreen. We realize that not only the abortion event has come to an end, but also the struggle to responsibly represent this politically traumatized world. In interviews, Mungiu, who wrote the script, talks about the autobiographical dimension of his work.[13] But, in fact, he made a film for all those who have already forgotten this world, or have not experienced it at all. 4 Months...’ characters not only embody suffering under Ceausescu; their traumatic experiences also reveal an unbridgeable gap between their world and ours. It is no longer possible to understand them, emotionally, at least not through identification. There is no such thing as a subjective common denominator that can function as a vehicle of empathy across time. Otilia, Gabita and Mr. Bebe remain separated from us by the cold surface of the exhibit window.

The film creates several layers of estrangement—the characters’ estrangement within the 1980s atomized society, the spectators’ estrangement from them, the Ceausescu-era survivors’ estrangement from their past and from themselves. The aborted fetus becomes a metaphor of this alienation. Its rejection allegorizes the failure of the memorial project. Thematizing this failure, 4 Months... uses it to its advantage, making the project somewhat successful in its very failure. Otilia’s run through the ghostly streets of Bucharest to dispose of the fetus reproduces the viewer’s own disorientation and anxiety. The effort to understand the past via traditional cinematic means is aborted, dumped. But this failure allows for a different attitude toward its subjects. They are no longer regarded as “one of us,” but as other, radically and irrevocably other.

The last scene's post-traumatic predicament attempts to make the impenetrability of the past visible. We have spent ninety minutes in the company of two characters, trying to understand them and their world. But the only thing we have really grasped is how limited our access is. The scene is one of mourning. The two women on screen mourn a child whom they can not imagine bringing into the world. For our part, we mourn the fantasy of an organic link with the cinematic other, who remains opaque—an opaque face as well as an opaque social actor, whom we cannot approach, among other things, because of our inability to understand relationships on the model of friendship that Otilia and Gabita share.

As one of 4 Months...’ reviewers puts it, the abortion is completed, but a feeling of incompletion persists.[14] The narrative achieves closure, but the characters remain elusive. The subject reveals itself as an empty frame, which the film refuses to fill with a spectacular presence. The last shot thematizes the exhibit window as both a promise of representation and a mark of radical difference. The two protagonists are sitting at the table in the deserted, dimly lit hotel restaurant. Otilia has returned from her adventure dumping the fetus, and Gabita has come down from her room to have dinner, because life goes on, and she is hungry.

Offscreen sound thematizes the camera position as placed both inside and outside the restaurant. We can hear minimal dialogue and music inside, but we can also hear cars on the street. This paradoxical location is clarified by a strike of cinematic genius. The filmmakers allow the headlights of the passing cars to reflect on the transparent surface that separates the eye of the camera from the mise-en-scene and unravel its existence. We are reminded of our position as spectators. We look at the characters from outside, from behind the glass.

Significantly, there is another glass wall in the background, occupying the surface between the two protagonists’ heads. This surface is neither a window nor a mirror, neither transparent nor reflective, but something in between, both opaque and see-through. It is veiled, semitransparent, revealing as much presence as projected shadows. Offscreen music tells us that behind this screen-within-a-screen, a wedding is taking place—the accepted framework of mothering and sexuality. As it turns out, the glass walls create three worlds. First is the space outside, the space of the spectator, behind the allegedly transparent surface of the exhibit window. Second is the narrative space inside the restaurant, where the two protagonists act their own lack of transparency. The third space is the realm of history, of Ceausescu’s Golden Age, which we try to get hold of via the mediation of both the cinematic apparatus and the symbolism of the plot. This last space is even more blurred, forever elusive.[15]

The last frames of the last scene present us with an unusual concluding cut, a cut on motion, suggesting a semantic opening rather than an appropriate closure. We see Otilia turning her head, but we never find out toward what. Something out there has drawn her attention, but the film ends without disclosing its source. We are reminded of the first shot, which, without musical support, started by showing the characters in the middle of an activity. We can read this ending in two ways. On the one hand, 4 Months... has just offered us a “slice of life,” and refuses to yield to conventions of closure. The film ends the same way it began—in ellipsis. On the other hand, this cut whispers to us that something has been intentionally left out, which brings us back to 4 Months...’ thematization of framing. According to this second reading, the film ends not in the middle of a cinematic sentence (ellipsis) but with a question mark: What was left out and why? It is possible that the film leaves out the ultimate close-up, the face-to-face encounter with the other, the intersection of a character’s gaze with that of the spectator. Why, then, is this acknowledgement of the camera suggested, yet never confirmed? Why is it constructed as a presence and then edited out as an absence? 4 Months… is committed to an ethics and politics of realism. Mistrust in the cinematic apparatus is not only the starting point for a critique of representation, but also of an effort to recuperate the anthropological power of cinema. It is by acknowledging its frame (and limits) that film can respond to the call for a scrupulous representation of the other. Otilia’s gaze cannot be allowed to reach beyond the already thematized conventions of filmmaking. This would contradict 4 Months...’ poetics, its awareness of the insurmountable distance between representer and represented.

Notes

[1] Ostalgia is the anglicization of the German Ostalgie, a portmanteau of the German words Ost (east) and Nostalgie (nostalgia).

[2] See http://www.mywire.com/pubs/AFP/2006/
11/12/1988298?extID=10037&oliID=229
,
Agence France Presse, Nov 12, 2006.

[3] In the early 1990s, Romanian television ran a documentary series titled The Memorial of Pain. The show reported on the injustices of the communist regime and their effect on real and potential political opponents. While the series had a strong impact, it never convincingly argued for the existence of a Romanian Gulag. Its organizing principle was moral outrage.

[4] Cesare Zavattini, the neorealist theorist, is known to have suggested that the plot of a truly realist film represent a day in the life of an ordinary man with minimal dramatic effects.

[5] Zavattini was referring to the found story in the tradition of French literary naturalism, a story that one has discovered in the newspaper. The story of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days could not have been reported in the communist press. Abortion was not only illegal, but the regime tried to present it as inexistent. Abortion stories circulated in an alternative, word-of-mouth sphere. Mungiu, however, emphasized that his script was based on a true story, “found” through this alternative route. See also Richard Porton, “Not Just an Abortion Film: An Interview with Cristian Mungiu.” Cineaste. March, 2008.
http://www.cineaste.com/articles/not-just-an-abortion-film.htm.

[6] This incremental shift of interest from contemporary plots to incursions into the Ceausescu era spurs a dialectical turn in the relationship between past and present. The Death of Mr. Lazarescu is very aware of the past. Its elderly hero, Mr. Lazarescu, is a product of the days gone by. Everything that happens to him in the present is in dialogue with the past, confirming the Zavattini/ Bazin thesis that, in realist film, history surfaces like a spectral presence in the details of the everyday.

[7] Hayden White, “The Modernist Event.” The Persistence of History, Vivian Sobchack (Ed.), New York: Routledge, 1996, 21.

[8] 4 Months…’ anthropologic effort to recuperate the everyday is suggested by the film’s subtitle, “Memories form the Golden Age.” (This is how the sycophantic media called Ceausescu’s last years in power.) The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was also envisioned as part of a series, “Six Stories from the Outskirts of Bucharest.”

[9] Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, 82-83.

[10] Adi, the boyfriend, is both inside and outside the dorm niche. He is a helper, but he is also one of the many domineering figures of this film. Otilia trusts her roommate, Gabita, more than she trusts him, although marriage is or has been in the cards.

[11] In 1966, the Romanian state passed a law (known colloquially as “The Decree”) banning abortion. The cruelty of this law comes to the fore only if we understand that it regulated birth control in a society with a rudimentary culture of contraception. Communism did not make much progress in reforming Romania’s sexual politics and gender dynamics. It was mainly a woman’s responsibility to “take care” not to become pregnant, and expectant unmarried women and single mothers were stigmatized. The only legally approved contraceptive was the condom, but it was difficult to purchase, of poor quality, and was regarded, in a macho culture, as a pleasure spoiler. Contraceptive pills were available on the black market, but their quality was questionable, and, in the absence of reliable medical counsel, few women knew how to use them properly or how they would affect their health. In terms of social engineering, the abortion law was successful. It increased birthrates and created what is known in Romania as the “Decree” generation (Otilia belongs to it and so does Mungiu). Ironically, this generation would be in the avant-garde of the 1989 revolt against the very regime that produced it.  

[12] The irony of the abortionist’s name should not escape us. In Romanian, like in French, “bebe” is a synonym for infant.

[13] Mihai Fulger, Noul Val in cinematografia romaneasca (The New Wave in Romanian Cinema), Bucharest: Art, 2006, 81-82.

[14] A.O. Scott, “New Wave on the Black Sea,” New York Times, January 20, 2008.

[15] In a recent review essay, Ioana Uricaru points to one of 4 Months…’ most suggestive visual metaphors: the close shot of a fish tank at the beginning of the film. According to Uricaru, this image encodes the director’s vision of the characters’ entrapment in the communist project. The pre-1989 world “is just an immense fish tank, into which the audience is looking through the transparent cinematic fourth wall.” We could add here that the fish tank could also function as a metaphor of the link between film and museum exhibit. Ioana Uricaru, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: The Corruption of Intimacy.” Film Quarterly, Summer 2008,14.


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