From the editor and writers of Bright Lights Film Journal
Action! Interviews with Directors from Classical Hollywood to Contemporary Iran
(Anthem Art and Culture), by Gary Morris (Editor), Bert Cardullo (Introduction), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Foreword). London and New York: Anthem Press, 2009.
"I dare anyone to squeeze between two covers a more varied, useful and flat out entertaining sampling of the personalities that make the seventh art the liveliest."
David Hudson,
Safety First
The 45th New York Film Festival
The 2007 NYFF's more cautious than courageous this year
For a long time, the New York Film Festival was the inarguable heavyweight in town, practically on a direct feed from Cannes, Venice, and Berlin. Times have changed and there's no doubt that the NYFF has some competition in the more exuberant Tribeca Film Festival. This year, a few new members joined the selection committee, but too many commercial films that don't need the NYFF push still clogged this edition. Aside from the crowd-pleasers, some of the choices were simply perplexing, yet the best of the picks threatened to transform this honorably venerable showcase to its once daringly seminal place in cinema. As always, the organizers offered a great array of sidebars including tributes to Brazilian cinema of the 1960s, Cathay films, and a restored version of John Dahl's under-known Leave Her to Heaven.
Other Side of the MirrorAmong the real delights were the music documentaries. Insightful, sensitive, and possessed of a musician's sense of rhythm, Murray Lerner has far too modest a reputation for his rightful place in filmed music history. Culling from nearly entirely unseen footage he shot at the Newport Folk Festival, Lerner's Other Side of the Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival 1963-65, is a succinct and elegant summing up of the vast changes to Dylan and by Dylan in that short span. With no narration and Lerner's trademark insistence on letting each song occupy the time it needs, he shows how different "going electric" was from the apocryphy that surrounds it. A substantial portion of the audience cheered the change, its dimensions obvious in Dylan's work-shirt-and-jeans to leather-jacket-and-shades transformation but also in the listeners themselves, the dewily innocent faces of his listeners (even if one affects a pipe) beginning to show a little worry by 1965.
Dylan also had a cameo of sorts in another highlight, Runnin' Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, whose four-hour running time is exactly the kind of risk NYFF needs to take. Like Lerner, director Peter Bogdanovich had the sense to let many of the band's songs play out fully, rather than cutting away to commentary. It's essentially a history of the 30-year-old band, with Petty himself the main source, personable and articulate and philosophical about the less-than-happy choices he's had to make to realize his ambition. Excellently edited, Runnin . . . is an amalgam of newly shot footage, a band member's archival Super 8 films, music videos and other broadcasts. It boasts spectacularly little personal information. Only after 90 minutes does Petty's personal life come into play and then always in service to the greater project of documenting the band and its music. Though neither as elegiac nor as genial as Scorsese's Last Waltz, Bogdanovich's Runnin . . . shows a similar understanding of how life-defining music is for Petty and his band. By never losing sight of this, Bogdanovich manages to do the band proud and, even more impressively, to compellingly and truthfully reflect the much-misunderstood late-seventies and eighties period in American pop.
Less delightful was Carlos Saura's Fados, an unfortunately fussy take on the earthy and irresistible Portuguese blues known as fado. Of uncertain origin, fado is deeply rooted in Lisbon's streets, and Saura uses the city to good effect throughout. But the series of interior vignettes, some featuring interpretive dance, distracted from the profound simplicity of the music. Archival footage and opening and closing crowd scenes soundtracked by Mariza, Caetano Veloso, Amalia Rodriguez, and many others hinted at the importance of this music to the country's psyche, an effect often lost in the earnestly hokey modern-dance tributes.
A strange hokeyness also permeated Todd Haynes's I'm Not There, his gentle, insistently arty, and poetic take on Bob Dylan (the virtual honoree of this festival). Using six different actors to portray Dylan, Haynes's re-enactments of well-known episodes and dramatizations of classic songs verged far too close to This Is Your Life. Along the way, he incorporates image and music references to 8 ½ and Amarcord, films whose only connection to this picture is Haynes's decision to include them. Similarly, other music choices, even the Dylan songs themselves, but most glaringly the Monkees' "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone," have a contemporary, tin-eared sensibility that ignores original context in favor of literalness. And that's a problem throughout: Haynes picks and chooses "interpretive" versions of Dylan episodes (freight-hopping to New York, going electric at Newport, etc.) to piece together a take on the performer that actually substantiates the several clichés (spokesman for a generation, especially) his six "Dylans" keep denying. So much is made of an Edie Sedgwick-inspired character, Coco (as vamped by Michelle Williams), that it seemed Haynes's de-sexed reading of Dylan is that he's actually Andy Warhol.
Darjeeling LimitedThough it confers no prizes, the NYFF does deem the opening, closing, and centerpiece films slightly more equal than the rest. This year's opening night was Wes Anderson's weakly brewed Darjeeling Limited. Shown in tandem with Hotel Chevalier, a short that will now accompany it in general release, the aptly "limited" Darjeeling outlines the story of three brothers ostensibly in search of a "spiritual epiphany" in India. Since it's perfectly conceivable that Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody, and Jason Schwartzman could be brothers (or at least cousins), nobody needs to do anything but be themselves. Considering the much-mentioned nature of their journey, the film is awfully materially obsessed (including with drugs, which are, after all, the ultimate unsatisfiable consumer desire), in particular with a set of illustrated matched luggage that is given three separate credits (the manufacturer, the fashion designer, and the illustrator). Despite its efforts to be lightly and breezily meaningful, those cumbersome valises are a fitting symbol of the leaden whimsy that so completely weighs down Anderson's taxing idiocracy.
Tweeness also infused Persepolis, the full-length animated feature co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, based on her graphic novels, which was the closing-night film. In debt at subprime rates to Lotte Reiniger, the nearly entirely black-and-white drawings have an appealing elegance in land- and cityscape scenes, though they became more cartoony when peopled. Detailing Satrapi's admittedly fraught childhood in 1978 Teheran to her adolescent exile to Vienna, return to Teheran, and ultimate settling in Paris, Persepolis never acknowledges the rather substantial safety net with which Satrapi was operating. The circumstances of her country were inarguably dire, but her own life was sufficiently economically cushioned that her problems were essentially those of many well-to-do young adults. The film's insistence on a whimsical view serves, finally, to trivialize the real events.
What was most striking about both of these supposedly life-changing journeys is that virtually nothing of them resonated or remained a few days after viewing. Both Persepolis and Darjeeling Limited are so palatable and presented in such simple-minded blacks and whites (even if Anderson's is a riot of colors themselves a virtual cliché of travel-brochure India) that they leave no room for ambiguity or real thought.
A slightly different set of problems beset the centerpiece, Joel and Ethan Coen's No Country for Old Men. Superbly shot and deftly edited, the film looks like Stephen Shore's unsparing photographs. Cinematographer Roger Deakins captures the same dynamism of western American landscape and the uniformly unadventurous built environment with which we've dotted it. Based on Cormac McCarthy's novel of the same name, the film has typical amplified-quotidian-life touches of the Coens (every desk clerk like a former Bates Motel employee; home-ec acing women buffeted by their wild men; an eight-year-old's fascination with gore and guts, etc.). Evil in No Country is embodied by Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem, who moves here like a cross between the Terminator and Frankenstein), a lethal sociopath. Once the initial premise was set up — a no-hoper chances on heaps of drug money and has to outrun Chigurh — the film became no more engaging than a board game. Except that it had other implications as well: running interference and trying to get to each of the men before they find each other is Sheriff Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), who actually resembles Ronald Reagan in certain scenes. Routing evil: it just can't be done, but if anyone's going to put a stop to it, are the Coens suggesting that it's going to be a version of Reagan? Read this way, No Country for Old Men looked awfully like a cheer for the cowboy heroics so cherished by our current White House occupier.
And in the vein of presumable inadvertent support for the with-us-or-agin'-us worldview is Redacted, Brian De Palma's historically misprisioned account of troop misconduct in Iraq. The story is based on the real rape of a teenager by American servicemen and the dilemma of the officer in charge about whether and how to report the incident. Admirably willing to experiment with various contemporary means of telling his story — Web site grabs, HD portions, an internal news documentary (in French — oh, the ironie!) — De Palma dodges, presenting a poorly acted, trite story that — I assume indeliberately, since he stressed that he wants the war to end immediately — actually substantiates one of the most overused and specious arguments of this war: that blame for the worst incidents rests on — surely the most overused phrase of the early 21st century — a few bad apples. For the soldiers, and for De Palma, the Iraqis remain fixed as the Other, the script cliché-ridden, a grab-bag of phrases snatched from mainstream news reports, and full of comforting explanations. Though as a coda, he includes Internet photos unavailable through the mainstream U.S. press, De Palma has not successfully made the ostensible argument that lack of real information keeps American citizens from pushing to end the war. The use of Taryn Simon's photograph of a bloodied woman who may be wounded or dead as the final image is neither disturbing nor sympathetic, only prurient.
AlexandraAlexander Sukurov makes a far more effective anti-war statement in Alexandra. The title character, played to the formidable hilt by Galina Vishnevskaya, arrives in Chechnaya to visit her grandson at his base. As she walks among the barracks and even rides in a tank, she seems indomitable, unimpressed by the materiel, anxious to connect to the soldiers personally. Shot in a sepia palette, Alexandra actually feels dusty. The action, such as it is, occurs when Alexandra goes to the marketplace, her exchanges with the women she finds there less Russian to Chechnayan than neighbor to neighbor. Sukurov's image of the war-deformed building one of these women lives in remains the most memorable of the NYFF images. Its façade twisted as if the plaything of some monster, the building itself looks mournful. After Alexandra visits, a young boy walks her back to the base. In a more conventional, consoling film, this would bring some resolution. Instead, he just tells her he wishes Chechens were free, leaves her at the gate to the base, hesitates, then returns to his side of the no man's land.
Revolution was also central to Calle Santa Fe, Carmen Castillo's memoir/ documentary about her return to the house in Santiago, Chile, where her husband, Miguel Enriquez, leader of the resistance against Augusto Pinochet, was fatally shot in 1974. Pregnant and wounded in the raid, Castillo was for a long time unaware that Enriquez was dead. The film begins with her recent return to their house (the address of the title), intercutting her visit with interviews, most compellingly with other activist mothers, who shed light on the quasi Sophie's Choice decisions they had to make about leaving their children while they were in exile. But much of the film feels repetitive, even somewhat self-indulgent, with the editing far too flabby. Like Satrapi, Castillo landed in rather comfortable, if alienated circumstances in Paris. There's no argument that films about the horror years in Chile belong in the festival, but too often Calle Santa Fe appeared a vanity project that actually robbed sympathy.
Similarly frustrating was Lucia Small and Ed Pincus's Axe in the Attic, a well-meaning documentary of the Katrina. Although Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts is pretty much definitive on this disaster, the festival committee was right to include another documentary on this subject. As well, Axe in the Attic recognizes the complications of the Katrina displacement, of people shunted from their homes for whom daily rounds with FEMA and insurance companies become the center of their lives. Unfortunately, Small and Pincus wrong-foot from the outset by including their soul-searching about the purpose of this project in the film. In sequences better suited to a counselor's office, they manage to displace the spotlight from their subjects to themselves.
Another questionable choice was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Julian Schnabel's adaptation of Jean-Dominique Bauby's memoir of the last months of his life, when he had locked-in syndrome (aka pseudocoma). Completely paralyzed save his left eye, Bauby, the former editor in chief of Elle, blinked in order to communicate and to compose his memoir. In the promising opening, Schnabel shows a play of blurred color and sound that gradually resolves itself into doctors, with Bauby (convincingly embodied by Mathieu Amalric) answering in voice-over, slowly realizing they cannot hear him. The camera is seeing what he sees, except it's not, since with mono-vision he would have had no depth perception. But far more problematic is the neat and tidy way Bauby's imagination plays out here: it feels like one long photo-shoot. The at-sea and underwater theme is inescapable (inevitably, "La Mer" appears — twice — on the uninspired soundtrack), but Schnabel avoids imagining what being imprisoned in one's own body would really be like in favor of sentimental goop. Informed by a shelter-magazine sensibility, Diving Bell feels like product placement for the well-appointed, upscale life, apparently the only kind worth living. Schnabel uses Bauby's professional success as the touchstone, the loss of glamour about as tragic as things get here.
City of SylviaDifferently but equally mawkish was In the City of Sylvia, a nearly dialogue-free romance set in Strasbourg, France, and directed by Jose Luis Guerin. A youth (Xavier Lafitte) arrives to find the woman he can't forget in Strasbourg. He lurks around where they spent time, then obsessively follows women he thinks might be her, the "dialogue" of the film composed essentially of the ambient sounds of the city. Throughout, colorful street characters recur, most troublingly a standard-issue immigrant flower-seller, a Vú comprá (the usually Senegalese men who trawl any tourist area with trinkets from sunglasses to lighters) and a picturesquely inebriated homeless woman. Blinded by his own winsomeness, Guerin dwells on the otherness of the marginals, while his protagonist's obsessive tailing of the city's women verges on stalking.
Although it's obviously hard to turn away heavyweight directors, the inclusion of Sidney Lumet's Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, as bloated and overlong as its top-o'-the-morning title, was questionable at best. The tale of two fortyish brothers (Phililp Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke) in New York who hit on the idea of knocking over their parents' suburban jewelry store to get ready cash requires a suspension of disbelief nearly equal to purchase of the Brooklyn Bridge. When the heist derails, the victim not their parents' expendable employee but their own mother, all sorts of Oedipal demons are meant to be unleashed. But unlike The Celebration, in which mere modern mortals went toe-to-toe with the gods on hubris, the characters in Before the Devil have feet of solid clay. The characters in Lumet's film are predictably awful, yet their trajectory lacks any sense of destiny. Paced with a gimmicky start-and-stop, every plot point defused as the film flashes back and back to the days before the caper, Before the Devil had only its look going for it: cinematographer Ron Fortunato's chrome-slick images are a perfect metaphor for the moral dent this film tries but doesn't make.
Not quite as bad, but also nowhere near his past level of excellence, was Béla Tarr's Man from London. What works are the deeply saturated black-and-white shots and a great sequence at the beginning of a man pacing inside a lighthouse. As he studies the quay outside, he moves slowly across a row of leaded windows, the frame-by-frame effect like watching film spooled out by hand. And as always, whether lingering on the hull of a ship or carefully exploring the world of levers and machines, Tarr makes beautiful work of slowing down attention and perception, of actually changing how we watch a movie. But perhaps because he has to actually tell a linear story — it is based on Georges Simenon's novel — Tarr's accretive style doesn't add up here. In the midst of it, Tilda Swinton dubbed into Hungarian, manages only to look crazed. A response, perhaps, to the overwrought accordion soundtrack.
Also included more for reputation than actual project was Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon, an adaptation of Honoré d'Urfé's digressive 17th-century novel. Rohmer's customary ravishing young things scheme and pine in balletically flimsy costumes, shot in faded-Boticelli light that suggests the intervening centuries have simply fallen away. Convinced he's unfaithful, shepherdess Astrea (Stéphanie Crayencour) orders her shepherd swain Celadon (Andy Gillet) to keep away from her. Despondent, he throws himself in a river. She believes him dead and he refuses to go against her wish not to see him, his only recourse to dress as a woman and befriend her again. This delicate, amusing tale of cross-dressing and crossed purposes in which believing leads to seeing and not the other way around is unquestionably accomplished and well-made but broke no new ground for Rohmer and certainly not for the NYFF.
Claude Chabrol did deliver with A Girl Cut in Two, a contemporary extrapolation on the fatal affair between Sanford White and Evelyn Nesbit. Local weathergirl Gabrielle Deneige (Ludovine Sagnier) captures the attention of Charles St. Denis (François Berléand), a successful writer, and Paul Gaudens (Benoit Magimel), the heir to a fortune. Though St. Denis beds her first, it's the younger man she marries, much to the consternation of his mother, Geneviève (Caroline Silhol, allowed, as many other older Chabrolian women, to steal pretty much every scene she's in). While there are overtly fetishistic scenes such as Gabrielle's entrance into St. Denis's study on all fours, wearing, in a manner of speaking, a full peacock tail, it's the hints — St. Denis sitting by a pool, at and between the pedicured feet of his wife and seductive publisher or the never-shown-room at a private club where Gabrielle's eyes are opened to the extent of St. Denis's perversions — that really give A Girl Cut in Two its tang. Chabrol rolls out a pageant of overdecorated rooms, over-pruned gardens, and bespoke clothes that, like the characters' lives, give no sign of the stinking corruption within.
I Just Didn't Do ItI Just Didn't Do It, directed by Masayuki Suo, is a meticulous examination of other forms of corruption within the Japanese legal system. Accused of subway groping, a young man, Teppei Kaneko (Ryo Kase), insists on his innocence. His actual guilt or innocence is far less upsetting to all concerned — including his own defense attorney — than that he won't cop a plea. Shot in clinically cold color, I Just Didn't Do It is at once an examination of this quite common accusation but also the insane pace of life that has no time for discovering the truth, only for filing paperwork. Against the odds, the accused's family take their case to the streets, trying to find the one witness who initially stepped forward, then disappeared. Though this is centered on the Japanese legal system, the preference for expediency over fact chimes with our own system as well.
In The Last Mistress, Catherine Breillat combines Jules Barbey d'Aurevilly's 19th-century novel An Elderly Mistress — its intrigues and strategies far more typical of the 18th century — with references to Marlene Dietrich, Orientalist painters, and, in particular, Caravaggio. Betrothed to the pure and sweet Hermangarde (Roxane Mesquida), Ryno de Marigny (Fúad Aït Aattou) swears to give up his long-time mistress, Vellini (Asia Argento), but he might as well give up breathing. Breillat is unafraid to show Vellini using Ryno pretty literally as a tool, their bodies often captured in sculptural images that look like performance art documentation or a choreographer's snapshot-notes. The sumptuous colors — gold, green, and red especially — in the tableaux and those strangely pre- or post-coital compositions make The Last Mistress chromatically and figurally engaging, though it remains more a series of beautiful vignettes than a coherent picture.
Noah Baumbach has often spoken of French influences on his work, in particular Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart, which was obviously on his mind during Margot at the Wedding, a kind of Murmur lite. Baumbach is more commendable for the chances he takes than their execution. Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh are believable as sisters Margot and Pauline, just not all that interesting. Margot arrives with her son Claude (Zane Pais) for Pauline's hastily arranged marriage to Malcolm (Jack Black) at the family home in New England. Things go wrong and more wrong, but what's lacking is a firm center to the film. Shot in half-light and effectively scored by a constant low drone of classic and alt rock, Margot at the Wedding has something of the feel of a home movie. Given that the camera begins by following Claude, it may be his memories we're visiting but there's a great deal here he couldn't know. The need to convey that information made the film feel occasionally forced, more effective in its small moments — the jockeying for position between Malcolm and Margot in Pauline's life — than in its wishfully revelatory scenes.
Lee Chang-dong's Secret Sunshine is another film with real potential that ducked out at the crucial moment. It opens spectacularly, the perspective that of a small boy, Jun (Seon Jeong-yeob), peering out of the windshield of a stopped car. Outside, his recently widowed mother Shin-ae (Jeon Do-yeon) frets about being waylaid on the path to her misguided project — moving from Seoul to Miryang (secret sunshine in Korean), the small town her husband was from and about which he raves]. A local, Jong-chan (Song Gang-ho), comes to help them, quickly embedding himself (with the hope of bedding the widow) in their lives. Things take a catastrophic turn and Shin-ae tries to find her way through Evangelism. Boldly engaging the idea of forgiveness, Lee loses the thread about two-thirds through Secret Sunshine. Despite Jeon's often convincing distress, what should be devastating is merely unfortunate.
Though there were too many mainstream films and less than stellar off-beat choices, the festival committee just about redeemed itself with the following excellent choices.
UselessSlight but vital, Jia Zhangke's Useless is really several small films loosely bound together under one title. The weblike structure, in which parts of the film are revisited circuitously, makes the film only come together at its very end. With Chinese clothing designer Ma Ke as a central focus, Jia set out to look at the stages in the life of an article of clothing, whether off the rack or one of Ma Ke's elaborate, singular brocades. Jia uses clothing to show the several dimensions of contemporary China, both the massive manufacturing power and the determination of individual artisans. While not a major work, Useless continues many of the same themes of Still Life (see reviews in issue 57 and 58) and includes the startling shot compositions that Jia seems not so much to compose as to find waiting for him.
Paranoid ParkParanoid Park, Gus Van Sant's free adaptation of Blake Nelson's novel of the same name, does the seemingly impossible — detail an essentially affectless teenager in terms as oblique as his own. Set in the world of Portland, Oregon's, skateboarders, the title refers to the concrete pocket park shown mostly from its rim, the skaters dipping and surfacing as if on elastic terms with gravity. On his first visit, Alex (Gabe Nevins) hooks up with a somewhat older guy and follows him to go freight-hopping, inadvertently causing the death of a security worker. It's Alex's numbness, his attempts to rely on his fragmented family life as ballast that the film traces effortlessly. (Unsurprisingly, he lives with his mother, sees his father only occasionally, is absently present at school; at this point in American history, it's the short version of generations of young people in this country). His vapid girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen), sees Alex as a means to lose her virginity and gain status. His closest female friend, Macy (Lauren McKinney), makes herself available to talk, but Alex can't articulate, only write in his journal. Meanwhile, officials and the police push for details, Christopher Doyle's superb cinematography equally at ease with the harshness of these scenes and the fluidity of the skating. Van Sant gets the ADD aspects of this world just right, shooting from odd angles, using 35mm and 8mm, and including sequences that seem captured on a cell phone. Paranoid Park feels very true to the Never-Never Land of skating, with its combined divorce from the reality of growing up and its total devotion to perfecting a useless skill. Without heavy-handedness or fanfare, Van Sant presents a vivid portrait of a-historical youth, neither burdened by the past nor galvanized by the future.
Flight of the Red BalloonHsou Hsiao-hsen's Flight of the Red Balloon takes its inspiration from Albert Lamorisse's Red Balloon. In Flight of the Red Balloon, a little Parisian boy, Simon (Simon Ireanu), also sees a red balloon and it follows him, but Hsou's film belongs to the grown-ups. Simon's single-mother, Suzanne, played by Juliette Binoche, is a stressed-out puppeteer not good at life beyond the stage. She has engaged Song (Song Fang), a young Taiwanese filmmaker, who rapidly becomes part of the fairly bohemian household. Red dots and red lights appear throughout like a life force all around Paris, struggling against the tide of cell phones and other gadgets on which modern life depends. Suzanne is a sort of Mrs. Jellyby, with time for everything and everyone who isn't directly related or actually dependent on her. As the makeshift family surmounts a real estate crisis, Hsou produces a cinematic découpage of city life, with its unusual opportunities and sometimes unbearable pressures that feels both particular and universal.
Silent LightSilent Light, which Carlos Reygadas set in the Mexican Mennonite community, features an astonishing opening sequence that begins in the stars, shows dawn breaking over the plains of northern Mexico and culminates in the reflected portrait of a large Mennonite family at breakfast, their image caught in the shiny pendulum of their relentlessly ticking clock. "Amen," the first word of the film, sets the tone of faith and mystery for the story of what might be called raised-consciousness adultery. Johan (Cornelio Wall Fehr) is close to nervous collapse after a two-year, openly admitted affair with Marianne (Maria Pankratz). He actually does love both his wife, Esther (Miriam Toews), and his mistress, finding no way out of his dilemma. The strain finally causes Esther's death. In a scene sublimely harrowing, Johan stops the car for her to get a breath of air and as she walks into the edge of the woods, she collapses from a sudden heart attack. Far from solving Johan's problem, it only compounds his guilt and confusion. Reygadas riffs here on Dreyer's Ordet, posing similar questions about faith and redemption. He honors but doesn't objectify the simplicity and hard work of the Mennonites, Silent Light so true to their situation that it never has the feeling of novelty. At a time when war movies and warlike statements inform so much of cinema, Reygadas shows the complications of peace, the subtler dramas of problem-solving and resolution. As few filmmakers can, Reygadas manages in Silent Light to arrest attention, to demand an active viewing that resonates long after the final starlit frame.
Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two DaysUtterly different, but incorporating some of the same concerns was the other stunner of the festival, Cristian Mungiu's Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days. Set in Romania in 1987 it is, at its most basic and literal, the story of an illegal abortion. But in the guise of a seemingly minor tale of university students in trouble (magnificently played by Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu), Mungiu manages to show a society so utterly corrupt that it taints every relationship. Of particular note is Vlad Ivanov's deeply exploitative Domnu´ Bebe, all the more creepy for his profound banality. Oleg Mutu's cinematography constantly suggest that people are practically invisible or actually in the way of those in power. Without ever mentioning Ceaucescu, communism, or the Iron Curtain, Mungiu conveys just what it meant to chafe under a system in which sex and (sometimes) eating were used as both reward and punishment. But to cast this film in purely political terms is far too limited. The Eastern bloc countries were obviously and clearly repressive but that's only the surface level of this first-rate film. As Four Months shows, the willingness of human beings to make their fellows' lives miserable for short-term gain, petty advancement, a pack of smokes, or the sheer hell of it has no country of origin.
November 2007 | Issue 58

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