It wouldn't be fair for me to compare Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or winner 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS to Cristi Puiu's THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU, for we all know how I feel about Puiu's unadulterated masterpiece (Best Film of the Decade, anyone?). Compared to LAZARESCU, everything seems just a little bit less awesome. But that isn't to say that I wasn't devastated by Mungiu's excellent film, because I was. It's easily one of the year's finest achievements.
While I’d like to leave LAZARESCU on the shelf for this review, it’s virtually impossible not to make a connection between Mungiu and Puiu's extraordinary hyperdramas. For starters, they’re both set in Romania. Just kidding! If anything, here is where the films are at their most superficially different, for while LAZARESCU is set in a post-Communist 21st Century, 4 WEEKS takes place in 1987, before the fall of Ceacescu. But the differences end there and the similarities begin to burst forth. Though these films are set in very different eras, neither is overtly political. They are, first and foremost, profoundly intimate portraits of interpersonal human conflict. By concentrating so specifically on these individual stories and characters, both Mungiu and Puiu have produced works that can be appreciated and interpreted on countless levels, including the politically metaphorical if one so chooses.
The most obvious link between the films is that they were both shot by cinematographer Oleg Mutu, whose documentary-style camera tactics establish an extraordinarily palpable air of authenticity. His unstable camera (I would say handheld but Mungiu was quick to point out in his press conference that they were using a gadget that implied a handheld effect without actually being handheld) and long takes establish a realism that makes most actual documentaries look like REDACTED (more on De Palma’s debacle later). But all the best photography in the world doesn’t matter if your actors aren’t believable, and here is where 4 WEEKS comes to incredible life.
Anamaria Marinca delivers a career-making performance as Otilia, the friend who has gotten herself into more trouble than she bargained for after agreeing to help her dazed, hapless roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) get an abortion. But like Puiu (unlike someone like Clint Eastwood, say), Mungiu makes sure every single performance is up to snuff, no matter how minor the role. Much in the same way Luminata Gheorghiu stole the show in LAZERESCU (she makes a brief appearance here as Otilia’s boyfriend’s mom), Vlad Ivanov is certain to be remembered at the end of the year when Best Supporting Actor awards are handed out (or whenever the film is actually released here). His portrayal of Mr. Bebe, the man with the briefcase of tools to get the nasty job done, is one of the most commanding things I’ve seen in recent memory. There is an extended scene in which Bebe interrogates Gabita that is a virtuosic tour-de-force.
If I had to say why this film isn’t on par with LAZARESCU, it’s because it is almost completely lacking in humor. This is a harsh, bleak, harrowing tale, told as matter-of-factly as possible. Of course, that was clearly Mungiu’s point, and what a devastating point he has made. But for me, what makes LAZARESCU such a freakish miracle is how it is both deathly serious and hilariously alive at the exact same time. But as I said, it’s unfair to compare any film to THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU. I just reread CRIME AND PUNISHMENT and am more convinced than ever that Puiu’s film is the closest to Dostoevsky cinema has ever come.
Still, I can’t recommend 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS highly enough. It is, without question, one of this festival's true must-sees.
(Screening on SAT SEPT 29 at 12:30pm and MON OCT 1 at 9:15pm)