Sunday, November 18, 2007

When in doubt, opt for depression

Summary: I vacillated for a minute about how I should spend closing night of the Starz Denver Film Festival. Should I see "August Rush," an inspirational movie whose ads describe it as "a captivating fantasy?" Or should I head straight for "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," the devastatingly bleak Romanian movie that won the Palm d'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival? If you guessed "August Rush," I refer you to a line from a song by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. "If you don't know me by now, you will never never know me."

I went Romanian and wasn't sorry. Director Cristian Mungiu's movie has been picking up raves at festivals ever since its triumph at Cannes. Turns out the Cannes' jurors were right. Gripping as it is grim, "4 Months'' might be the year's least compromised movie.

"4 Months" deals with a university student (Anamaria Marinca) who's trying to help a friend arrange an abortion in 1987 Romania. At the time, abortion was illegal and carried stiff penalties -- as much as 10 years in prison. To make matters even more precarious, the woman who wants the abortion (Laura Vasiliu) has tarried. She's in the fifth month of her pregnancy.

Mingiu establishes a climate of economic desperation so severe, it's hardly surprising that the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) proves even more predatory than expected.

Mungiu's lengthy takes allow the story to unfold with an agonizing sense of realism. (It almost seems as if events are taking place in real time.) But he also builds tension, as he paints a telling picture of the meanness of life in Caucescue's Romania. Be warned: A couple of the movie's images could prompt walkouts. This is tough stuff.

To its credit, "4 Months" can be read either as pro or anti-abortion, but the movie's real achievement revolves around the ways in which Mingiu toys with our perceptions. He primes us to anticipate conventional moves, but outsmarts us at every turn, ultimately reminding us that we sometimes allow our expectations to blind us to horrors that are right in front of our eyes.

Look for a review when the picture opens.

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