Thursday, 21 January 2010

Ok. Thanks.

With this film it means I have seen all of the Palme d'Or winners of the last decade with the exception of The White Ribbon, which I don't believe has been released in the UK yet. If it has, sucks to be me. I really wanna see it.

4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days won the big gold branch in 2007, and was then outrageously and controversially snubbed for even a nomination at the Oscars a few months later. Many think that that, coupled with the Gomorrah snub last year, is why they have tweaked their voting rules. But then, the Academy so rarely pays attention to the Palme d'Or winners anyway (unless they're English-language, and even then...) that I don't think it's so much to go on. The English-speaking world kind of ignores the celebrated French winners in general - it's the way it roles. You're either going to be big at Cannes, or you can hope for American box office or award glory. The two rarely meet.

Cristian Mungiu's breakout was a bit of a big-hitter in its year. The Romanian production took out a bunch of critics awards around the world, was nominated for a bunch more, and even took home the Best Film prize at the European Film Awards. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is helping her roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) procure an illegal abortion during the 1980s. Of course, things go wrong. I'm not going to go into it. What goes wrong is what drives the narrative of the film, though I don't think it drives the film itself. 

In true European tradition (and especially the Romanian film tradition of late on the international stage), realism is the key. It's all about showing the place as these characters would find it in real life, in those times: grubby, broken, flawed. It ain't pretty, and Mungiu and his team don't try and show it that way. It's depressing, it's reality. The streets are cold, the hotel is stark, the world is cruel, and there is no easy way out. Money isn't going to make the truth go away, and besides, who has money?

It is arduous, and there are few letups along the way. The characters plow through and hope for the best. Sometimes the best happens, sometimes it doesn't, but their own lack of recognition of the gravity of the situation in which they find themselves doesn't help the matter. It's not that they laugh it off, but it is a serious crime at that time (whether or not is should be is a matter the film doesn't go near - there is no moral judgement here) and some of their actions don't seem to reflect that. People could go to prison, and yet Gabita won't follow the abortionists instructions, which leads to hearbreak all round.

I think the true trauma inherent in the film doesn't come from the abortion at all, but from something that happens just before. That is what the friends have to struggle with, have to come to terms with. Their anger, fear and humiliation is directed both at each other and at themselves, but they don't have an opportunity to truly feel these things whilst Gabita is lying with her legs in the air waiting for a foetus to come out. That's only half their concern. It's what they had to do to get there that propels the drama.

Excellent performances from all, especially from the two girls, and that gritty realism help the cause. And while I think it's a very good film, I'm not entirely sure it's the masterpiece that all are holding it up to be. Though the relentless pursuit of the morose is praiseworthy, especially when it doesn't end up moribund. Grueling but rewarding is the name of this game.

4 stars. That might increase. Just writing this out has made me appreciate it more than I think I did just after I finished it. I guess with time to fester within my soul it could prove to be one of those films that I keep coming back to.

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