TIFF Capsules — Day 5
4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, Cristian Mungiu, Romania, 9
Mike generally has a generally good sense of my tastes, so I’m curious why he was unsure whether I would like this film, given that he (accurately) predicted that moral/religious reasons would not be a problem. When Ryan and I began discussing 4 MONTHS sitting in the theater during the credits, at almost the same point, we said “Dardennes,” i.e., one of my 2 or 3 favorite current filmmakers. This film is the answer to that eternal riddle “what if the Dardenne Brothers had been born in Bucharest?”: the style and general interest is exactly the same — all-natural light, down-at-the-heels urban milieu, characters at the economic margins but not exactly poor, no music but a very precise sound mix, constantly roving camera, short period of time, tightly focused plotting, a narrow life-defining quest pursued with dogged DOGGED persistence in the midst of a variety of other tasks, naturalistic performances. The major difference is that Dardennes deal in moral dilemmas and their consequences; in 4 MONTHS, there really aren’t any. Mungiu made a film much more about the most-hectic shit day of your life, trying to juggle 100 tasks, remembering what lies you told, and get around others in your way (in that sense, not unlike THE CHILD).
Surprisingly, the central Rosetta-like protagonist is not Gabita, the woman seeking an illegal abortion, but her college roommate Otilia (Anamaria Lucia, a great performance). Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is a real airhead, and not in a funny way; indeed her stupid lies and avoidances set up potential fatal situations. And so it’s believable that her friend would simply “help” a la Vera Drake, seeing herself as a protector of a friend in over her head. All the while, trying to deal with her own boyfriend issues and trying to get by in Ceaucescu-era Romania where cigarettes serve as a kind of second currency, scarce commodities are traded as needed, and the black market for all goods, not just abortion, is considered a part of life. Scene after scene plays with perfect attention to detail and balance. Especially fine is a scene of a birthday party where everybody is engaging in fairly-interesting party talk while the camera keeps a tight frame for several minutes on two people privately miles away. Indeed, life in actually-existing-socialist Romania is portrayed as nothing but lies, where lying about things large and small, hiding things, maintaining appearances, getting around others is ubiquitous. Everybody does it. And everybody knows everybody else does it, making social life one long cynical day of pragmatic getting-by. The short performance by the abortionist himself (Vlad Ivanov) should be on Wikipedia as the illustration of “Pragmatism,” subfield “ruthless.” And anyone who thinks THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU had unbelievably insensitive hospital personnel is invited to look at the hotel workers here.
As for the portrayal of abortion. Yes, this movie is in a very broad sense *about* the quest for an illegal abortion. Abortion as either a moral matter or a political issue simply does not appear, on either side. The decision to abort was made before the movie begins, and the abortion and disposing of the dead baby are simply tasks in a laundry list and, unlike in VERA DRAKE, nobody says abortion is wrong. But there is a shot of the result of the abortion that doesn’t last long but is as in-you-face and bloody as any pro-life group poster (this being the 5th month, it’s an undeniably human form and it’s far more explicit than the original ALFIE. Squeamish: Consider this your warning.) On balance, I would put it this way: 4 MONTHS is a movie where nobody says word of pro-choice propaganda and which shows an aborted corpse dead on the floor. That’s a net plus. Indeed, I wonder how this film would have played had it not come with the reputation and handy tag “Romanian abortion movie.” The A-word, like with the central plot points in THE SON, LA PROMESSE and THE CHILD, is not even mentioned until quite a way into the movie, though there is much indirect (not the same as euphemistic) talk about what had already been arranged offscreen. Would the first 20-30 minutes have played differently, as more mysterious, with the shocking A-word clicking together what much of the talk’s been about? The world will never know.
HAPPINESS, Hur Jin-ho, South Korea, 5
The kind of moderately entertaining festival fare that tends to evaporate in your head fairly quickly amid all the great stuff (and crap) surrounding it. Starts like the Feel-Good Movie from Hell though, as a high-living South Korean secretly flees the big city and the alcohol that has given him cirrhosis in his 30s. He heads for a kind of health farm, filled with wacky characters, including The Girl Who Will Save Him but has has own fatal disease (lung cancer). But it takes some surprising turns in its second half and is much tougher on the central character and more serious than it starts out as. Still, to be perfectly frank, it’s four days later and nothing particular or singular, for good or ill, about it has stuck in my head (hence the grade change from 6 to 5). Except that HAPPINESS maintains current South Korean cinema’s near-perfect record of having in every film one scene or one action or gesture of shockingly (to this and most other Westerners) unmotivated or excessive-for-the-motive brutalism, even in a movie that you wouldn’t call violent.
ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE, Shekhar Kapur, Britain, 2
Begins with a lie — an internally-secure Queen Elizabeth saying in 1585 that Catholics will not be punished in her England for their beliefs, but only for their actions (every British Catholic grows up knowing what a “priest hole” is). And it ends with a lie — a title card saying that with victory over the Spanish Armada, “England entered a time of peace and prosperity” (no, it became victorious in its external wars and there were great cultural and exploratory achievements; but anti-Catholic persecution became much more vigorous and culminated in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot against Elizabeth’s successor; the English Civil War came within 50 years of Elizabeth’s death). And in between — there isn’t much: bombastic style with pompous score, portentous camera angles and sinister shadows that pound everything into the ground. Cate Blanchett is playing a middle-aged Elizabeth, so she doesn’t have the girlish charm that made her performance in the original so winning. Worst of all, the film frankly traffics in some quite ugly anti-Catholic imagery. And to be clear, I’m talking director’s choices — things like having crucifixes and rosary beads sinking slowly down to the bottom of the sea to triumphal music. No sane man denies the obvious facts of history: Spain WAS a Catholic power and the Church DID try to overthrown Elizabeth and used English Catholics in its efforts. I quite liked the first ELIZABETH film, and, like most British Catholics, I really do have pretty thick skin about British history, thicker than a lot of St. Blogs’s Americans. But this pissed off even me.
ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, Werner Herzog, USA, 6
ENCOUNTERS doesn’t have a central protagonist as compelling as GRIZZLY MAN’s Timothy Treadwell. Nor does it really have much of a unifying idea or structure — it would be very easy to dismiss ENCOUNTERS as a T-shirt saying “Werner went to Antarctica and all we got with this lousy [sic] home movie.” And Herzog for the first time (to me, anyway) shows a side to his persona that can fairly be called ugly. He steps on people’s self-descriptions as “ridiculous” or “I’ll make a long story short,” which comes across as especially mean from Werner Herzog, since no human being walking the face of the Earth has made a better life from being or from chronicling the sort of “touched” eccentrics whose lives are “efforts to jump off the world” and so collect at its Antarctic bottom? But with those limitations stipulated, and the 6-grade noted, this remains a very entertaining and often amazing piece of Discovery Channel programming (though it’s more of an anti-doc than a doc). And in fairness, Herzog does hold back at certain moments — the Russian who doesn’t want to discuss his past, say. And his “Stuttering John/’Man Show’ Boy”-schtick of asking inane or bizarre questions that prompt “keeping up appearances” answers (“is this a great moment?” say) is never not funny. And the imagery Herzog gets of the world under the ice is simply unbelievable — and even 75 inches of the best plasma won’t do it justice: jellyfish with visible hairs on their tentacles; droplets of water (though who knows what size they are) on the underside of the ice sheet, converging like droplets of ink on the table; swimming through fields of small marine life that cloud and blotch the visual field like the pulp in a glass of orange juice. And Herzog can still get the image too bizarre to be believed — the “piece of luggage act,” the blonding-snowstorm training both look like games that “It’s A Knockout” would have envied. And there ARE penguins in this movie. But this being a Herzog mnovie, it is not a spoiler to note that they are deranged.