Art of darkness

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 March, 2008, 12:00am

Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days tells a bleak story of one girl's nightmarish attempt to get an illegal abortion, and the director admits he had his tongue in his cheek when he subtitled it 'Tales From the Golden Age'.

The film is set in Romania in 1987, in the dying years of the communist era, and the 'golden age' is a dig at the regime of former state leader Nicolae Ceausescu.

'This is what the propagandists would call the last 15 years of Ceausescu's reign, which for us is very ironic,' explains the 39-year-old Mungiu.

'It was a period of acute shortage of everything, and no power and nothing to eat, and still they were calling it 'the golden age'.'

Just 19 when the film was set, Mungiu says he wanted to make a film about this period of his life.

'It so happens that I was living my 20s in the last days of the communist times, but my purpose was not to make a chronicle of the period, or to talk about abortion under communism,' he says.

'I just wanted to tell a strong, personal, emotional story relevant for my generation.'

With abortion illegal in Romania since 1966, Mungiu is part of what he calls a baby boom generation.

'I was born in 1968, so I am one of the children that came in this world when [abortion] was illegal, and our parents weren't hiding this from us. At some point I felt that this generation wanted to have a story about the way they live and about themselves.'

Given the renaissance that Romanian cinema is enjoying, however, the film's subtitle has taken on an entirely different meaning.

The golden age of Romanian cinema began with Cristi Puiu's 2005 film The Death of Mr Lazarescu, which followed a dying man in his final hours as he was shunted between hospitals.

It continued in Cannes 2007, when Mungiu's film took the Palme d'Or and Cristian Nemescu's California Dreamin' won the Un Certain Regard strand of the festival. Sadly, Nemescu died, aged 28, in a car crash in Bucharest, in the middle of the film's post-production.

'This was an important award,' says Mungiu. 'Not necessarily for the film community in Romania but for his parents.'

If the youngest light in the new wave of Romanian directors has tragically been extinguished, it will do nothing to dampen the feeling of optimism surging through the country right now.

With other directors on the rise, including Radu Muntean (The Paper Will Be Blue) and Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest), Mungiu says 'there are several partial explanations' for this sudden crop.

'One of them comes from the fact that there is a new law in Romania regulating cinema, which manages to put together more and more money every year for filmmaking. For example, in the year 2000, we weren't capable of making any films in Romania. It was like the zero year! Then, this law started to function, and more and more people were given their chance to make their debut in filmmaking every year.'

Mungiu says he and his compatriots are producers as well as writer-directors. 'It makes a difference, because you do the film that you want to do. There is no economic pressure from the side of the producer.'

As a result, the small but strong community of filmmakers is thriving. What's more, they're keen to maintain this level of success and 'preserve this level of the new Romanian cinema', says Mungiu. '[The new law] made people think about cinema. And it made directors ask, 'So what is cinema to me?' Now they think, 'This is a serious matter. I can't just make whatever subject crosses my mind, because there are some results and ... I'm going to be compared with people.''

Mungiu estimates it was this thinking that allowed his film - only the second of his career after 2005's Lost and Found - to play in competition in Cannes, in the 60th anniversary year, when 'all the big names were there' to celebrate the festival. There was great support at home when his film and California Dreamin' won the major prizes.

'It was perceived as a national victory. A great victory for the image of Romania. All of a sudden, we were on the cover of the newspaper for something good, for a change. Everybody felt so proud of this. It was a bit like with the football - people were saying, 'It's wonderful! We won something!' Lots of people are never going to see the film but still they felt very proud.'

Given the film's success, this last statement seems strange, until you consider that in 2006 cinema admissions in Romania were at an all-time low (some 2.7 million). Compare this to the Ceausescu era, when the state film studio churned out films regularly, selling 95 million tickets a year - an impressive haul for a country whose population numbers about 23 million. With just 35 cinemas left in Romania and only five distributors in the country - all dedicated to releasing films from Hollywood studios rather than homegrown fare - Mungiu knew he'd be facing an uphill battle to get his film seen back home. His solution was to do it himself.

Hiring equipment from Germany, Mungiu arranged for what he calls a 'caravan' to tour around the country's major towns, where there are no longer cinemas.

'We organised two days of screenings in this caravan tour and we sold out the four or five shows in these towns,' he says.

'Hopefully, after this I can go and tell the authorities that we did our part. We did the films that people want to see and we show that they want to see them. Now it's for somebody else to do something.'

Yet there is no suggestion that Mungiu is going to sit back and let others take over.

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days is the first in a series of films that 'attempt to make a subjective, personal history of the late communist times in Romania', as he puts it. Initially, he wrote several short screenplays retelling urban legends and actual experiences under communist rule. Now he plans to produce these short films as an anthology. Having already directed one, 35 minutes in length, he has decided to open the series to other filmmakers.

'It will place together six Romanian directors, mostly young people who haven't directed a feature yet.'

A former journalist and academic, who studied literature in his hometown of Iasi in the north of Romania, Mungiu appears to be taking on a new vocation - that of curator of his nation's cinema.

'It's something I should do now,' he admits.

'It's a good way of using the popularity that is currently associated with Romanian filmmaking, because after us - the four or five people who already have international recognition - I think there is a generation of other directors to come. It's a good opportunity for them.'

By his estimation, it seems the golden age has only just begun.

4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days opens today