You won’t see a better film about abortion than Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days. It should be used as a resource by anyone campaigning against the repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Now Cristian Mungiu is back with another equally absorbing moral parable. Again he uses the same lingering scenes to depict the slow pace of life in the grubby backstreets he presents with such chilling accuracy.
Romeo, a doctor, lives with his wife Magda and daughter Eliza in the town of Cluj, Romania. His marriage in tatters, he’s been having an affair with a single mother for the past year.
After he drives Eliza to school to do an exam one day, she’s assaulted and is traumatised by the experience. The reward for performing well is a scholarship to a prestigious British university – Romeo’s holy grail. Fearing she’ll falter, he starts pulling strings to ‘enhance’ her grades.
He’s involved in other shady activities too. By ‘putting in a word’ with a medical colleague he attempts to have a friend who needs a liver transplant ‘bumped up’ the queue. This is the way things seem to be done generally in Cluj. Favours are bestowed in return for backhanders. But can such practices go on indefinitely?
This is a wonderful film, a modern-day epic of the ordinary. As I listened to the uplifting choral music that punctuates many of the scenes the term ‘soap opera’ came to mind. It’s a term that’s been devalued by television. Here it seemed literally relevant. Humdrum lives become elevated to the level of art by Mungui’s transformative direction.
Romeo is a fundamentally decent man who’s been driven to desperate acts by his reduced financial circumstances. The film doesn’t judge him and perhaps we shouldn’t either. All too often we see the mote in other people’s eyes rather than our own, a point the film itself makes. All the performances are top-notch. Playing the beleaguered doctor, Adrian Tutieni carries an air of near-permanent dementedness as he tries to ‘fix’ all the many things that are broken in his life.
As Magda, Lia Bugnar seems locked in a world of her own for most of the time. Happiness has passed her by long ago. Now she merely goes through the motions of her days.
She’s aware of Romeo’s affair and also of his attempts to interfere in Eliza’s education. She protests, but with an air of defeatism. Dejectedly dragging on cigarettes she watches the values she inculcated in Eliza being steadily eroded.
Maria-Victoria Dragus is equally compelling as Eliza. Like her mother, she becomes more and more disenchanted with Romeo when his scams escalate.
As in all great films – and life – none of the central issues are really resolved. It ends with the eponymous graduation, offering us only a tenuous nirvana. This is as good as it gets for the damaged denizens of a godforsaken community slouching towards a very compromised peace.
Graduation will glue you to the screen.