18 January 2008

Mate Expectations

"Enjoy," said the cashier at the Arts cinema when she handed me my ticket for 4 Months, 3 weeks and 2 Days. "Well, not enjoy but er..." she added hastily.

"Absorb? Digest?" I suggested. She nodded. She was right, though; the tale of a girl in her early 20s trying to help her friend get an abortion in Ceau┼čescu's Romania in 1987 it isn't exactly light-hearted stuff. I suppose the film is opinion-provoking rather than just thought-provoking. As my only previous knowledge of abortion in Romania under Ceau┼čescu came from Freakonomics (the chapter about Levitt and Dubner's proposal that legalising abortion reduces crime), 4 Months... was also very enlightening for me.

Enter Gabita and Otilia, best friends and roommates in a hall of residence at their university. It quickly emerges that Gabita seems to be the selfish, self-involved one but although when she asks Otilia to get things for her, the latter agrees, Otilia is by no means a walkover; far from it, in fact: she proves to be the strong one, the brave one, the selfless, caring, loyal, self-sacrificing one. When we meet them, they appear to be packing up to go away on a trip and we soon learn that this is no holiday; Gabita is pregnant and she and Otilia are going off to a hotel where a man named "Mr Bebe" will perform an illegal abortion.

We don't find out who the father of Gabita's baby is, nor do we find out the circumstances under which she fell pregnant. This doesn't really matter because, unlike the many of the people who will watch the film, Gabita doesn't have a choice; the regime dictates that there shall be no abortions. This added dimension makes it harder to imagine what you would do in her situation, simply because you don't have to worry about the illegality of the abortion or about the possible dangers and risks associated with the abortion.

Early on in the film, Otilia demonstrates what a good friend she is to Gabita; she keeps on giving and giving in her efforts to help her friend. She borrows money from her boyfriend (and ends up showing up late to a family event that is important to him), she rides a bus across town (without a ticket) to check in to the hotel, only to find that there is no reservation, so she has to go and literally beg a receptionist at another hotel. It is Otilia who goes to meet the abortionist because Gabita is too scared.

The abortionist himself starts out as a reasonably sympathetic character. He is suspicious, sure, but then he has to be given what is at stake if he gets caught. He gets cross when he finds out that Otilia and not Gabita shows up to meet him and he gets even crosser when he finds out about the change of hotel; he feels he can't trust them when he is about to put himself on the line to help them out. His anger flares up again when it emerges that Gabita is not two months pregnant as she mentioned on the phone but more like four months, three weeks and two days, which turns the crime into murder rather than abortion. She fudges about her irregular periods and not knowing where to count from, but abortionist remains unconvinced.

The new hotel is more expensive than the original one and as such, the girls only have 2,850 lei instead of the 3,000 their friend Ramona said they would need. Then abortionist gets angry again - he never said anything about money....oh no. For a second, you think that maybe he is some altruistic, idealistic, anti-establishment figure, who helps out these young women out of the goodness of his heart - a Romanian Vera Drake. Then, of course, you realise exactly how he expects to be compensated for his assistance and how far Otilia has to go to help her friend.

The film is really about Otilia - the ordeal she goes through, her courage, her relationship with her boyfriend and his family (who look down on Otilia's "countryside" upbringing and peasant parents), her relationship with Gabita and her bravery. We never really learn very much about Gabita other than that she appears to be rather foolish, selfish and demanding. She doesn't think about things properly, she makes mistakes and expects others to clean up after them. She seems quite cowardly. That said, I cannot even begin to think about what a state I would be in if I were in her situation. I am sure I wouldn't think clearly and wouldn't be capable of making sensible decisions. Perhaps I too would procrastinate as long as possible to avoid making it "real" and then panic and flap around like a headless chicken to try to resolve the problem as fast as possible. She has no history, nor is she given much personality and her friendship with Otilia seems to be her strongest point; she must have some redeeming traits if Otilia is willing to do so much to help her.

The film is pretty tense throughout; I can't even comment on the music, if indeed there was any, as I was so involved in the plot and the dialogue (not least as I had to read the subtitles, although I was surprised by how many words I recognised from the Romanian). It starkly contrasts with Paranoid Park, although both consider how the events of one single day can have a massive impact on the rest of your life, because in 4 Months... the narrative was chronological and there was a clear beginning, middle and end. However, while the whole of PP seemed to be a case study of the confused, disordered thoughts of the protagonist after the event, 4 Months... was the opposite and was focused around the build-up to the event and the physical aftermath, if not really the characters' reactions (other than relief) to the event.

Both actresses were pretty good in 4 Months..., although particularly Anamaria Marinca, who played Otilia. Otilia's boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean) was played quite convincingly too as he doesn't really understand the situation at first and then when Otilia tells him about Gabita, he immediately goes on the defensive, resulting in a fight between them - this is realistic. If they stay together after the events of the film, I can't imagine she would tell him just how far she went to help her friend.

Gosh, that was a bit heavy. I'll have to make an effort to be more light-hearted next time. I think Juno will make the perfect contrasted; a sharp, sarcastic, witty, yet poignant look at pregnancy. In fact, Juno sounds as though it is the opposite of 4 Months... in every way but I'll have to wait and see..

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