For his second feature, 39-year-old Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu knew exactly what he wanted–and garnered the Palme d’or in Cannes last year for it. He made a film that takes place over 24 hours in a provincial town one day in 1987, before the dictator Ceaucescu was deposed and Communism fell in Eastern Europe. It is a personal story based on an experience a woman had during that period, when abortion was banned. And it is deceptively simple. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) takes charge when her friend and dormmate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) gets pregnant and can not handle the details of arranging her own abortion in a cheap hotel performed by sleazebag Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Otilia is also stuck visiting the family of her boyfriend.
Shooting only in real locations, Mungiu decided to follow Otilia, static or in movement, as much as possible. He also chose to let the actors run beside and behind the camera, opening up spaces rarely used. He deploys very long takes. The film opens with fellow dormies haggling over black market items. The period was a bleak one but Mungiu, with the help of three superb actors, honors those who suffered through it. He also produced the film through his own production company.
indieWIRE: Your first feature was the 2002 “Occident,” very different in style. I realize you were saying it was okay to emigrate.
CM: it was the national obsession at the beginning of the 90s. It became a national sport.
iW: it’s so different in style, approach from “4 Months.” Please talk about that change.
CM: I believe that form and story go pretty much together. I became known as a director who uses humor. At the beginning I thought of making “Tales From the Golden Age”–six stories from that era– in a similar style as “Occident,” based on when I was in my twenties. I decided to give up that style for the moment because I thought I had the responsibility to have a very balanced view about that period. I realized that the series needed to start with a very serious piece, even before I knew the story. Then I started looking for the story. I got in touch with this girl who told me this story 15 years ago. It had strong emotional potential. I knew I wanted to make a story that was realistic and kind of complicated and serious and difficult. I decided to stick to a very simple, continuous kind of narrative. The six other stories are going to continue in a very different style.
Three of them have been shot, three more in the next three months. I am not going to direct any of them. I decided to make this an omnibus of young Romanian filmmakers. They are all taking place in the late Communist times.
iW: Can you describe changes in Romanian society. Most of the people in “4 Months” are so nasty to one another.
CM: You need people in a society to have reached a certain standard of living before they can be polite. You learn how to respect others because you don’t have to fight as much, you have what you need. We have made progress. Everything was owned by the state, and now everything is private. People need to be polite. 10% of the population left. We had 22 million in 1989, now 20 million.
iW: Why was abortion illegal in a country that is 90% Orthodox?
CM: The ban on abortion was a political tool, an economic calculation starting from Ceaucescu’s megalomania about the economy and agriculture in this country. He thought we would be the most important country in the region if the population was bigger. Now that it is legal, there are many abortions.
iW: The sex, for example, occurs off camera, but you opted to show the fetus.
CM: Some potential tv buyers wanted me to cut it. And an airline company wanted to buy the film without the abortion scenes and without the fetus!
I knew from the beginning that it was going to be there: It was in the original story I was told. I thought, is this decision motivated by the story, or is it my decision?
iW: The form of the film: the set-ups, following the actors, it seems to give the actors a freedom and an energy that maybe they don’t normally have.
CM: I encouraged them to experience this very special energy, but it doesn’t necessarily go with lots of freedom. We made this test at the beginning to see if they could improvise, and they weren’t comfortable, and we couldn’t sustain the long scenes. Everything had to be precise, because it’s so complicated to have a 10-minute shot when you are shooting direct sound and the shot has to be good for the light, so you couldn’t really improvise.
We shot in very tiny spaces because all is shot on location. Often we had to cut windows off and place the camera outside the room. There was no room for the camera inside. I think if you don’t stop an actor every two minutes, changing the position of the camera and the lighting, there is going to be a flow of energy. I also encouraged them to focus on what they say and to be very natural. The most difficult scene I had to shoot was the dinner scene at the table at the boyfriend’s family home. Eight or ten people. With the camerawork we tried to show the state of mind of the main character, Otilia. Whenever she’s still, the camera is still. Whenever there is tension and she’s anxious and running around, the camera follows her.
iW: Were you copying the period or going for the feel of it?
CM: I wanted the audience to experience what she was experiencing. It was not mimetic, it was a way of suggesting through narrative things, a special way of shooting her and utilizing sound. It’s a way of rendering her subjectivity. Everything we put in the film in terms of style was to show the inner state of mind of this main character. The film is not about what happened: It’s about what could have happened–if the abortionist doesn’t show up, if the police show up. It’s a film about Otilia’s fears. It’s a film about someone with empathy for someone else..
iW: What is Gabita’s problem? Why does Otilia help her out?
CM: You share everything because you have spent four or five years in the same dorm room. Emotions, food, friends–you establish a special kind of bond. This person was in a very difficult situation, and you didn’t have time to think it over, you had to react. We didn’t get any kind of sex education. So people weren’t very responsible.
iW: You changed the ending?
CM: Originally it ended with the camera going out the window with the snow falling. I decided to go with something more radical and less spectacular.
iW: What is going on in Romania that you have so many good new films? You have mentioned the control involved with having one’s own company, and that people have stories to tell.
CM: I think these directors have motivated each other. It’s a very strong, positive competition. We want to make films that won’t abuse the means you have as a filmmaker. We try fight against these cheap spectacular effects you get with choosing spectacular subjects. These directors don’t need a lot of things, like music, lots of editing. All of us reacted to a way of filmmaking from the ’80s: very unbelievable stories, very fake acting, wrong, fake dialog, nothing natural. Those films wouldn’t have the right rhythm and the right sense of time. Directors now are concerned with stories about everyday life that happen to everyday people.
We all know each other, but we don’t discuss aesthetic principles. There are some things you can see in several films, but nothing in all of them: sympathy for small things, and lately there is a tendency for stories that happen in twenty-four hours. The handheld camera is everywhere. We all belong to the Romanian film school, same generation.
iW: Romanian cinema is being hailed, but the media focuses on huge social problems.
CM: Our feeling is that you don’t have to fight to straighten the image of the country: You have to straighten the country. You must speak about problems openly. What I like about all these filmmakers now is that they are trying to influence as much as possible what is happening around them.
iW: Are you working on a script?
CM: I want to make my next film about something that is happening today.