During the final days of communism in Romania, two college roommates Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are busy preparing for a night away. But rather than planning for a holiday, they are making arrangements for Gabita’s illegal abortion and unwittingly, both find themselves burrowing deep down a rabbit hole of unexpected revelations. Transpiring over the course of a single day, Mungiu’s film is a masterwork of modern filmmaking, by parts poignant and shocking. Winner of Cannes 2007 Palme d’Or and nominated for 4 European Film Awards including Best Picture and one of the standout hits of the Telluride, Toronto and New York Film Festivals, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a modern classic that will stay with you long after you’ve left the theater.
Bijan Tehrani: How did you come up with the plot of the film and how much of the film is based on real characters and events?
Cristian Mungiu: 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is a film starting from a very real story. I did quite extensive research once I decided to do a film on abortion. The screenplay is shaped closely to the actual story. It’s somehow a personal story to me. Someone told me fifteen years ago about something that happened to them a few years before that. Eventually, last year, when I was looking for a story that happened during my twenties, I ran into this person again and the story came into conversation. I was surprised with how much emotion this story was still bringing to me, and decided to make this the subject of my next film.
BT: This film makes the audience uneasy and nervous. It was like the experience of watching horror movies except unlike many horror movies this film is a reality. Were you intentionally trying to stir the audience’s emotions?
CM: Pretty much what I wanted to do was tell this film from the perspective of the main character. I was looking for natural ways to express the inner state of mind of this girl. This was the purpose of the film from the beginning, to tell not so much the story of what happened, but what could have happened in the second part of the day. This is what the camera work is all about. It is trying to follow the inner state of mind of the main character. In the beginning of the film when the situation is calmer, the camera is still and simple filming is going on. In the second part of the film, she is very educated and the film is very tense and once she’s experienced this, the camera will follow her everywhere and attempt to transmit the excitement that the main character is feeling.
BT: To achieve a certain level of reality, many directors find ordinary people to play characters in their films. Were you tempted to do this? And how did you manage to help your professional actors with their roles?
CM: I wanted the film to be very natural, but at the same time knowing that I had to shoot these very long takes, I couldn’t take the risk of using non-professionals. I felt the film was very natural and simple by rehearsing a lot and getting professional actors. Nothing is improvised in the film and nothing is improvised in the screenplay. What we did was use the rehearsal to incorporate the dialogue of the film, the observations that we got from the actors, and their habit of speech, and in the shooting I asked them to remember everything in detail. I believe it is the way I work with them; I act all the parts with everybody because you can give a lot of indications, through your attitude, things that aren’t always obvious if you just talk about them. Whenever you are trying to give an indication to somebody, it is a method of how you relate to the situation. This film was easy for me to talk about with them. They understood and followed very well. We decided together that if I allowed them to develop emotions in front of the camera for ten minutes without cutting, then a lot of it would pass through to the audience. The audience will then follow the story without feeling that someone is an intermediate in the film for them. They can just witness every emotion in front of them and this is part of the strength of the film.
BT: In the film, we understand and accept the sacrifice that is performed for a friend, and that act isn’t questioned. In the US, many people would think that they wouldn’t go that far, even for a friend. Were you concerned about the liability of this scene?
CM: Honestly, I don’t think people will do something like this today, not even in Romania. The film is connected very much with the period in which the story is placed. For example, I had to talk to the actors, and I brought some women of fifty and sixty that experienced this to talk to them because it is something that they would never do as characters, as people today, but it was a very different situation then. In a historical period, whenever you have a common enemy, it is easy to identify and fight against, so more solidarity is seen among the people; more solidarity then is seen in a period of freedom. The women tend to be very close to each other because they fought against something that they considered to be an intrusion in their personal lives. There was also something about this bond that was created among these women who had to spend four to six years together sharing pretty much everything in their lives. They also knew this was a true story. We combined this all together on account of having motivation coming from the characters and from the film.
BT: At the dinner scene, we witness that Otilia begins to question many things. As an audience, we want her to go back to the hotel, but like her, we almost don’t hear what the others are saying. Was this done intentionally? Did you mean to achieve this effect? Are there any other purposes for this scene?
CM: It is a much-layered scene for me. The main purpose is about somebody who doesn’t want to be there, and about what you experience when you see her thinking about this girl who is having the same difficulties. For me it speaks also of the possible life that this girl might have if she decides to enter such a conventional family. It is a way of looking into the future and seeing how conventional your life can be if you decide to go for it like this. It also speaks a lot for me about social classes and communism and how, despite a system that encouraged equality, people were not necessarily equal. You can see this by the way she behaves in front of the parents, and how these other doctors speak to her. The camera work also compliments the acting. I organized this kind of movement in front of the camera to show how the small talk makes it easy because she never wants to be there. I think it is one of the best things Ana Maria did in the picture—she expresses all the right feelings of the character.
BT: Another interesting thing that I noticed in the film was the prominence of smoking. It’s a theme that is repeated throughout the film. Did you have any intentional meaning behind this?
CM: There is a very serious and important meaning behind it. It wasn’t about cigarettes; it was a social sign that you could afford the thing that you were asking for. During the communist period we weren’t allowed to have foreign currency. There were very few items from the western world that made their way in a socialist country. So they were very much appreciated, and especially a pack of cigarettes could be seen as a way of opening doors and solving problems. The funny part is that they stayed so much in society that a pack of cigarettes is still offered by some people as a sign of respect. During that period it was a way of saying that you were valid and that you could afford the surgeries or whatever you were asking for. It was much more than a pack of cigarettes but a sign of the period.
BT: Also, the visual style of the film was very interesting. I don’t think you used a lot of artificial lighting for the scenes to add effect. How did you come up with this style?
CM: Well we thought about what would be suitable for the story, and what we want to pass with the style. We decided that we want to abstain from using these kinds of formal means that you have as a filmmaker. If you question the external addition, you will understand that music is an external addition that doesn’t necessarily add to the theme of your story. We thought about if we needed music to tell the story of the film and decided that we didn’t and could do it without. We also asked if we really needed more things to aid the rhythm of our film, and our answer was no. We can do it if we use our strength as cinematographers and as filmmakers. We wanted a style where the audience wouldn’t notice us as filmmakers being intermediaries in the story for them. We wanted very much to be simple and honest to the story, and allow people to witness what happens and not to have our comments. We wanted to relate the story and allow them to see this emotion brewing up in front of them. Then we decided that even smaller things like tilting the camera or panning without having a character drawing the camera in a certain position, – that shot had to be our decision as filmmakers. We wanted very much to signal something else; that this is a segment from this life of the character. It is not a story with a beginning and an ending from the regular style of filmmaking. This is why we started the film in the middle of a very important scene, and ended the film in the middle of a scene. We just want to point out that there is more to this film than what you see. We left a lot of questions unanswered.