In Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the camera fastens on a Romanian university student, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), as she negotiates on behalf of her pretty, childlike roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), who wants an abortion but has somehow left the logistics to her friend. Yet this isn’t a movie of isolating close-ups. Otilia is either dwarfed by the space or squeezed by it, adrift or oppressed by walls and ceilings. Those negotiations—with sadistically indifferent hotel clerks, the predatory male abortionist, even the well-off boyfriend who insists on her presence at his mother’s birthday dinner—are gruelingly drawn out, rife with humiliations small, not so small, and vast. All abortion is illegal here, but this late in the term—four months, three weeks, etc.—the penalties are fierce, and so is the potential for a fatal infection. Otilia’s powerlessness is more and more palpable, and as she struggles to keep her focus, the camera remains transfixed. So do we. It’s 1987, two years before the overthrow of the Stalinist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, a time of shortages and cynicism, and Otilia’s dogged composure becomes increasingly heroic. We want her not just to survive, but to survive with her humanity intact.
Momentous things happen to a culture when its people wake up from decades of enforced stupor. After the “Hey, we no longer need to toe the party line or encode our meanings—let’s get naked!” phase comes the autopsy: the depiction, lest anyone forget, of what happened to people, on the outside and the inside, under a repressive régime. The frigid stoicism of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days barely contains the filmmaker’s fury. It’s a movie that centers on the subjugation of women, but the plight of Otilia and Gabita is also a window on a world in which everyone is stunted, in which fear has metastasized into malignant self-interest.
The danger, of course, is that the characters will come to seem like specimens in a jar—or fish in an aquarium, which is the first thing you see in the film and which briefly sent my metaphor meter into the red zone. But it’s fascinating to study the ways in which these particular sea creatures have adapted. Even the monstrously exploitative abortionist, Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), becomes a figure of wonderment: He has a shtick, and it hinges on the belief that his clients regard him as a moron and will always seek to take advantage of him. We know how he justifies his actions to himself; we even see a glimmer of humanity when his job is done and no one is in a position to screw him over. We don’t forgive him, but we understand how he evolved.
Last year’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu depicted a similarly dead-souled Romania, seen through the prism of a poor, disagreeable old man’s last hours as he’s shuttled from one uncaring medical facility to the next. Its unemotional “objectivity” triggered the same horror in audiences, but the director took cheap shots at most of his characters (overworked, underpaid medical personnel), and the movie was basically a single sick joke stretched to three hours. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days portrays a more complex ecosystem. Cigarettes are fetishized: Otilia can never find her precious Kents on the black market; she’s frustrated even in repose, puffing futilely. Mungiu moves between huge, empty, decrepit buildings (once presumably glorious) and characterless modern apartment towers: It’s almost impossible to reconcile the past with the present. There’s no music—only the thunk of radiators, the echo of shoes on uncarpeted floors, and, unforgettably, the sound of a small object as it bumps down a garbage chute.
Mungiu goes a bit over the top in the last scene, in which the protagonists are presented with a dish of brains and innards in a hotel restaurant. It’s meant to underscore the grisly centerpiece of the film and the offal-ridden vision of Romania circa 1987. The coup de grâce is especially graceless because everything we know is already visible in Marinca’s eyes. The actress is extraordinary. She can barely look at her pip-squeak-voiced roommate, who isn’t bad—just weak and self-centered. She can’t look at the disgusting plate. A gaze at the heavens would probably make her scream and bring police. She looks at nothing and smokes her non-Kents. There isn’t a trace of tremulousness—the more frozen her face, the more of her soul lies bare. That’s true of this remarkable movie, too.
Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side is the documentary that many of us have prayed for, the one that could break through even to people who relish the torture set pieces on 24 and will hear no evil about the War on Terror. It’s the equal of No End in Sight in its tight focus on the nuts and bolts of incompetence, and it surpasses any recent melodrama in the empathy it evokes for both its victims and—surprisingly—victimizers. More important, it leaves you brooding on the human capacity for cruelty in a way that transcends the gory details.
They are gory, indeed. Gibney’s entry point is the 2002 trip of a young Afghan cab driver named Dilawar who died after being tortured at Bagram air base at the hands of U.S. interrogators, his legs literally “pulpified” by men who—it emerges, in interviews—were more or less convinced by the time they took their final whacks that he’d done nothing wrong. He just kept screaming for his mother and father and the thing developed its own momentum and, well—no one told them the rules.
It would be easy for Gibney to stick to the facts of the Dilawar case—to the Kafkaesque nightmare of the 122-pound innocent turned in for a bounty after a rocket attack. (Not only didn’t he do it, but it never happened in the first place. As Emily Litella would say, “Never mind.”) But by the time Gibney gets back to the “few bad apples” (as Donald Rumsfeld called the abusers at Abu Ghraib), he has picked his way up the chain of command to the men who called the kidney shots: Dick Cheney and Rumsfeld, whose policy was to combine a “fog of ambiguity” with relentless pressure for results. They must have been pleased on some level; Carolyn Wood, the sergeant who presided over interrogations at Bagram, was assigned to bring her winning ways to Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo.
Gibney didn’t get to Wood—but he did manage to interview John Yoo, untroubled author of the “torture memo” declaring that the Geneva Conventions didn’t apply to Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo. Should the president be able to authorize these kinds of brutal interrogations, John? “I think it depends on why the president thinks he needs to do this.” The president should spend as much time as Gibney did with Professor Alfred McCoy, the author of A Question of Torture, who lays out the history of sensory deprivation—which, properly applied, can make a person psychotic in 72 hours or less, and render much of the intel questionable—and the unreliability of “waterboarding,” which produced, among other Greatest Hits, the bogus confession of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi that Saddam Hussein trained Al Qaeda operatives.
My favorite part of Taxi to the Dark Side—along with scenes from 24 and derision for the “ticking-time-bomb scenario”—is the interview with former FBI special agent Jack Cloonan, who gives us a sample of a “friendly” interrogation (no shackles, waterboards, or pummeling of the legs). Three lines from this sympathetic but wily man and I was ready to confess to every lie I’ve ever told.
Like Letters From Iwo Jima, the Israeli drama Beaufort dwells on the futility of war at the expense of a larger political context. It works. The film is set in and around the southern-Lebanon fortress (the name means “Beautiful Fort”) held by Israelis for eighteen years and in its final years frequently—and lethally—shelled by Hezbollah. The young Israeli men don’t look much like hardened soldiers and have no idea what they’re doing that far into Lebanon. But every once in a while one of them gets blown up—usually just after announcing plans for his future. The score is Eno-ambient—sad and creepy. You never see any Hezbollah fighters. It’s hard to breathe as the men wait for the final evacuation. Pro-war audiences on both sides will find Joseph Cedar’s vision irresponsible. I think Beaufort captures a higher irresponsibility.
The fear of the castrating female—and her most fearsome weapon, the vagina dentata—has been woven to squirmy effect into horror pictures like Alien. In Teeth, Mitchell Lichtenstein makes the old v.d. the centerpiece of a gory female-revenge black comedy about Dawn (Jess Weixler), an abstinence-proselytizing teen whose vagina puts the bite on guys who don’t know no means no. (The titanic nuclear-power plant in back of her house might have something to do with the mutation.) Most of the movie works because the blonde Weixler has a darling-daffy face (a pinch of Alicia Silverstone, a dollop of Drew Barrymore) and a should-I-or-shouldn’t-I ambivalence about sex that’s part realism, part screwball. The ending is a cheat, though. Once all the males are revealed as predators and Dawn learns to love her Inner Guillotine, the director might as well say, “Bite me.”
Communist ways are still thriving in Romanian cinema, or so say the country’s directors, who, while winning international acclaim for films about life under the old regime, are fighting the Romanian National Centre for Cinematography at home. Director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) are among those who’ve accused the CNC of reserving its scant funding for propaganda films. Most recently, Puiu announced his boycott of national competitions—and some say the state may retaliate by withholding funds for his future endeavors.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Directed by Cristian Mungiu. IFC. NR.
Taxi to the Dark Side
Directed by Alex Gibney. Thinkfilm. R.
Directed by Joseph Cedar. Kino. NR.
Directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein. Roadside Attractions. R.