Saturday, February 16, 2008
Saturday Night At The Movies
Blues for Ceausescu
By Dennis Hartley
There was a great film that came out four years ago called Maria Full of GraceThe story was a simple, straightforward narrative about a young, pregnant Columbian woman who hires herself out as a U.S.-bound drug mule in a desperate bid to escape her bleak, poverty-ridden existence. It wasn’t a horror film. It didn’t scream “tension and suspense just ahead!” with ominous musical cues. It was quietly observant and presented with an almost detached, “life-as-it-happens” nonchalance. Yet it was one of the most harrowing and suspenseful nail-biters I have ever squirmed my way through in a movie theater. However, when I finally let out my breath at the end of Cristian Mungiu’s new film, 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, I realized that Maria had just met her match.
Mungiu wrote and directed this stark, gritty drama, set toward the end of Ceausescu’s oppressive regime (the late 80s). Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are friends who share a Bucharest university dorm. From the get-go, we can see that these two aren’t exactly a pair of your typically care-free, happy-go-lucky coeds. In fact, none of the students wandering the hallways seem very quick to smile; they vibe a palpable sense of lowered expectations for their future and an innate mistrust of others that tends to fester in a totalitarian police state (you know-that nagging sense of dread that most thinking Americans have experienced since Junior deep-sixed habeas corpus).
Gabita has a problem. She’s pregnant, and wishes to have an abortion. Even though this story is set a scant 20 years ago, Gabita might just as well have wished for world peace and a million dollars in a Swiss bank account. In 1966, Ceauescu ostensibly decreed abortion to be a crime against the state in Romania, making exceptions only for women over the age of 42, and only if they had already mothered a requisite number of children; he also imposed a steep tax penalty, garnished on the income of any childless woman or man over the age of 25, single or married (he was a real piece of work). Otilia agrees to help. She secures a hotel room, and makes arrangements with a shady abortionist, Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Once Gabita, Otilia and Bebe converge, an increasingly nightmarish and heart-pounding scenario proceeds to unfold for the remaining three-quarters of the film.
Most of the more dramatically gripping moments take place in the hotel room, particularly in a hard-to-watch scene where the creepy Bebe forces an utterly reprehensible act of extortion on the two young women prior to performing the abortion. If you are squeamish, you may not make it all the way through this portion of the film. The unblinking realism of Mungiu’s vision demands full commitment on part of the viewer, and those more sensitive souls may want to avoid the film altogether. I think it is important to point out that when I apply the term “unblinking”, I don’t want you to interpret it to mean “exploitative”; there is nothing exploitative or “sexy” going on here.
This is one of those films that you find yourself thinking about long after the credits roll; the significance of certain scenes doesn’t sink in completely until you have had some time to digest. One such scene for me is when Otilia has to abandon Gabita in the hotel room during a crucial post-procedure monitoring period because she has promised her boyfriend Adi (Alex Potocean) that she would join him for dinner at his parent’s house (her boyfriend is already asking too many questions about her mysterious errand). There is a static shot of the dinner table that must last for a good 7-8 minutes, where Otilia sits in center frame, not able to explain the real reason she is not eating (at that point, we in the audience have lost our appetite, after viewing what happened in that hotel room). She says very little, other than a few perfunctory pleasantries, while the other dinner guests laugh and prattle on about mundane matters, proposing endless toasts and heaping second portions onto their plates (a few stuffy guests dismiss Otilia’s behavior at the table with some passive-aggressive inferences that it must have something to do with her lower-class upbringing). With nary a word of dialogue to utter for several pages of script, actress Anamaria Marinca nonetheless holds your rapt attention for the duration; her facial expressions flagging her inner turmoil and the concern for Gabita back at the hotel. It’s an amazing piece of acting and an inspired gamble by Mungiu that pays off in spades.
I like the fact that Mungiu doesn’t prosthelytize one way or the other about the issue of abortion in his film; it is merely presented as an incidental element of the bigger story here, which is how it feels to live in mortal fear of one’s own government. It’s all the little brush strokes that end up producing an incisive portrait of an oppressed society. For instance, the relatively simple act of booking a hotel room essentially becomes a white-knuckled interrogation scene; the officiously bureaucratic hotel clerk eyes Otilia suspiciously and demands to know why she and her roommate would need a room when they already live in a dorm. Everyone seems infused with a chronic, low-grade paranoia.
I have to single out Vlad Ivanov’s performance as Bebe. He’s so effectively convincing as a quietly menacing, repugnant but thoroughly believable heavy that it is easy to overlook the fact that it is a quite a turn on the actor’s part and must be commended.
4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days may not be a walk in the park, but it is a worthwhile 1 hour, 53 minutes for the discerning viewer-and depending on your degree of cynicism about our own state of affairs these past 7 years-can also be viewed as a cautionary tale.
And one more thing…
R.I.P. Roy Scheider
I was saddened to hear of the death of one of my favorite actors, Roy Scheider last Sunday. He was solid and dependable; I don’t think I ever saw him give a bad performance. Scheider was one of the last of the Lee Marvin school; while he did not have matinee idol looks, he still projected an un-self conscious aura of incredible “cool” onscreen; a “cool” borne not of cockiness, but confidence. Also, like Marvin, he made it look effortless; you could not detect his “method”, but you could always feel his character. He will likely be forever emblazoned in the minds of most movie fans as Chief Brody in Jaws , Gene Hackman’s partner in The French Connection and Bob Fosse’s avatar in All That Jazz, but his catalogue went much deeper. Even in relatively smaller supporting roles (Marathon Man, Romeo is Bleeding and Naked Lunch, to name a few) he always made quite an impression. Here are a couple additional recommendations:
52 Pickup – This tough, mean neo-noir from John Frankenheimer ties with Tarantino’s Jackie Brown as my favorite Elmore Leonard novel-to-screen adaptation. Scheider is perfect as a rich, self-made industrialist who is victimized by of a trio of murderous, imaginatively evil blackmailers. Scheider’s ingenious revenge is a dish served up very cold, indeed! Luscious Ann Margret (as his wife) is a force to be reckoned with as well.
2010: The Year We Make Contact – Although it’s not quite in the same league as its predecessor 2001 - A Space Odyssey (very few films are, IMHO) this is still an intelligent and exciting sci-fi adventure in its own right. It features a fine performance from Scheider as a scientist who travels to Jupiter as part of a joint U.S./Russian space mission to investigate what happened in the wake of the HAL computer’s meltdown (depicted in the first film). The fantastic cast includes Helen Mirren, John Lithgow and Bob Balaban.
Sorcerer – I think it’s time for a re-appraisal of William Friedkin’s unfairly trounced 1977 remake of the 1953 nail-biter The Wages of Fear. Scheider plays a desperate American on the lam in South America, who signs up for a suicidal job transporting a truckload of nitroglycerine via a treacherous jungle road. There’s also a great soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. I’m hoping for a proper DVD release (the current edition is dismal).
Still of the Night – Writer-director Robert Benton goes for a Hitchcock vibe, and Scheider and Meryl Streep have great chemistry in this thriller about a psychiatrist who falls hard for a woman whom he begins to suspect as the murderer of a former patient. It was a bit of a bomb when first released, but it I think it has held up quite well. It’s easy to get this one confused with Jonathan Demme’s 1979 film Last Embrace, which was also a Hitchcockian thriller starring Scheider (although not quite as involving as Benton’s film).
Dennis Hartley 2/16/2008 06:01:00 PM