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Q&A: Cristian Mungiu

An online exclusive interview

Director Cristian Mungiu at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

By Patrick Z. McGavin

From the moment it premiered at Cannes, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days emerged as an instant classic. The film is a wrenching and morally complex study of loss and violation that unfolds near the barbaric end of Ceausescu's dictatorship.

Shot in superbly choreographed long takes by the exceptional cinematographer Oleg Mutu, the film details the intertwined fate of two Romanian college students, Otilia (the extraordinary Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), negotiating with a chilling back alley abortionist (the terrifyingly good Vlad Ivanov) to terminate Gabita's unwanted pregnancy.

The movie captured the Palme d'Or — Cannes' highest honor — and it also was awarded the top prize of the European Film awards. With Cristi Puiu's brilliant black farce The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months is the major achievement of the burgeoning Romanian New Wave.

Mungiu talked with STOP SMILING about the film, his art and his inspiration.

Stop Smiling: What was the genesis of the project?

Cristian Mungiu:
I decided I wanted to make a film happening in my twenties. I was traveling a lot to festivals with my first film [Occident] and I got to meet a lot of people my own age. I grew up during this special generation of Romania. I was born in 1968, and I’m part of this baby boom that developed, following the outlawing of abortion in 1966. We’re called the “children of the decree.” Initially, I wrote another screenplay, which was much funnier than this one and lighter and starts from a different concept: recreating an urban myth. I took it around to some younger people, and I discovered they tended to associate the humor of the screenplay with the period itself. Somebody told me, “It must have been very funny to live then.” I thought, "No, this is all wrong, but it’s just a way of remembering." Something that needs to be more realistic, bleaker and refer in a very precise and natural way to the period. I started to think about stories from that period.

During this time — about two years ago — I ran into this person who told me the story of 4 Months [set] about 15 years ago. The story happened to them about five years earlier, so it was about 20 years ago. In talking to this girl, this story came into conversation. It came with so much of the original emotion that I experienced when I heard the story the first time, it struck me that it had such emotional power and relevance for what we experienced that it should become the story of my generation.

SS: In fact, you spoke of the film being part of a larger social fabric about Romania.

CM: "Tales of the Golden Age" was the official name of what the propaganda called Ceausescu's last 15 years of living in Romania. It’s very ironic for us: It's the worst period, but they called it the Golden Age. The original concept was to place together five or six stories, each about 30-40 minutes, starting with the urban myths of the period. Later on, I decided to add this project to that concept. It continues with one or two other features, each of them grouping different stories starting with urban myths of the period. My decision after the success of this film was to just remain the producer and screenwriter, and turn it into an omnibus project, and I brought five different young Romanian directors.

SS: Visually, the movie feels like one is under constant surveillance — the Stalinist nightmare that everybody you encounter is an informer.

CM: People were very much afraid, and I wanted as much as possible to capture in the film the atmosphere of the period, not the historic information. There are no direct historical records in the film, nothing specific to the politics of the period. You couldn’t trust anybody. People were observed all the time. It wasn’t necessarily that everybody close to you was an informer — people were just precautious. They learned not to trust anybody. For me, it was important to show how this kind of passivity connected to the use of authority was part of what influenced these girls.

SS: The other dominant impulse is that every form of transaction — personal, social, even sexual — is a form of negotiation, barter.

CM: Whenever you have to live in a period that is complicated, you have to learn your way. Nothing is very clear or simple or on the surface. You have to understand how things [work]. This kind of generates the feeling of negotiation. It’s difficult to say, by the end of the film, which of these two girls is better served by this society: the girl who apparently makes the decisions and negotiates with everybody, or the girl who doesn’t seem to do much, but will have her problem solved by the end of the day. It was a way of talking about compromise. When you live in a closed society and don’t expect this society will come to an end — people never thought the communist system would end — you tend to compromise more. They don’t anticipate any kind of judgment. They naturally think, "This system is abusing all the time, so I can be abusing with some other people because of this."

The beginning of the film [is about] the ability to find your way over there by compromising and negotiating your way out of things. There’s another scene which is related to this — the dinner scene where you see a different generation of people who are not guilty of anything else but adapting to the system. They had to survive, they had to raise children. They are people who adapt to that society. For me it’s the meaning of all these objects. It’s about what it meant [to have] that symbol of a free world: bar soap, a pack of cigarettes. They represented much more than you can see.

SS: Your lead actress, Anamaria Marinca, is fantastic. How did she get involved with the film?

CM: She’s only made one other film, a British television project called Sex Traffic, which was shot in Romania three or four years ago. It was not a film popular in Romania. But because of that film, she got a [British Academy Award] award in London. In a strange and twisted way, she became more popular in the UK than in Romania. She got an agent and she moved to London right before my casting last year. I met her; she was from my hometown [Lasi]. I knew a little bit about her. She was on the list of people for me to meet. She was a bit older. She was 28, and I wanted initially trying to find girls of 19 to 21. I auditioned many girls, and I decided to expand the range. I went to 24 and then 26. I decided age was not that important.

I had a screener of this film [Sex Traffic], and I watched about 20 minutes, just looking for her scenes. She had this kind of energy and strength I needed for the main character. She can act in a very natural way. I called her in an audition. As soon as she read from the script, I had this feeling that she had the mixture of strength and sensibility I wanted from the character. We didn’t have time to rehearse too much; the only scene we rehearsed was the long sequence in the hotel. I told them in advance we were going to shoot very long takes, and they needed to know the text in detail. This was how we worked, and we never improvised.

SS: How did you and your cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, conceive of the work visually?

CM: We decided from the beginning to have, as much as possible, one shot per scene. There are a lot of ways to shoot one shot per scene. Finally, we decided what would serve the story was not to make ourselves visible as authors. We wanted to tell the story so the audience would feel that they witness the emotions of the girls in front of them. We wanted to work without music, and we will be all the time the eye level of the characters — to allow people to just stand up and deliver their lines and not be talking off-camera, signaling that there’s a bigger story than you see. This is just a slice of their lives, just one day of their lives. By the end of the film, the bigger story is that there are a lot of unanswered questions.

We couldn’t make any sketches or storyboard because we had to stage everything like in theater. There is no editing, basically. It’s important to find the right rhythm of the film and figure out the right place to put the camera for which to capture the scene; this generated the position of the characters. It was complicated, because we shot on [actual] locations, and we shot scope. Shooting scope in location with a hand held camera in very small place generates a lot of problems.

SS: How do you account for the rise of the new Romanian cinema?

CM: Honestly, it’s very difficult to have a clear and precise explanation for all of this. It appears there is a generation that came of age at the same time. It’s the first generation of filmmakers that lived most of their lives under communism, but got to express [themselves] freely in this new world. They combined having the experience of those times with the freedom and modernity that they understood by living in this new society.

As much as censorship generated this wave of interesting filmmakers in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia [in the Sixties], it didn’t generate the same reaction in Romania. It generated something else; it generated a very intricate and metaphorical kind of filmmaking, and we all reacted to that filmmaking. The realism we’re using now is also a kind reaction to that cinema we were watching then. I never wanted to make cinema because I was seeing some wonderful films that I like, but because I was seeing some very stupid films I didn’t like.

I thought nothing like that ever happened in real life. There was no focus to the story and the dialogue was very fake, and the interpretation was awful. It’s not anything like what films should be like. In the early Nineties, there were a lot of films made about that period in Romania that nobody ever heard about because of the way they were made.

SS: Oleg Mutu also shot The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. He functions as the Raoul Coutard of the new Romanian cinema — the cinematographer who crosses directors and films.

CM: We’ve been colleagues and have known each other for about 15 years. We have a lot of common experiences. Besides making all my student films and the films afterward, we worked in advertising as well. We don’t have to talk too much. I wrote down a piece about style even before we started. I showed him a few films from the period, because he wasn’t born in Romania — he was born in the Republic of Moldavia, and so he doesn’t have the same kind of memories from his childhood. I think the best thing he did was render the atmosphere from the light. He knew from the beginning that I don’t like shadows, and I don’t use shadows, and he has to use existing light in the location as much as possible. He also [operated] the camera; never to move the camera unless there was something that triggered this kind of movement and follow as much as possible the main character and her state of mind. In the second half [of 4 Months], as she becomes very agitated, he would follow her all the time; in the opening, when she was calmer, the tension would come by putting the camera close to the characters without moving.

SS: Lazarescu and and Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest were both animated by a bleak and mordant Eastern European black humor. Your film is largely devoid of that. Were you afraid about trying to inject humor into the material?

CM: Not too much. My first [feature], and all my films before this one, were based on lots of humor. I thought with this film, humor is an intervention coming from outside the story. This was why I didn’t want to use my own humor. The humor comes from the situation, and it’s not at all my comment. The whole purpose of making the story like this was to be very neutral and not comment in any way of what was happening in front of you. There is a certain kind of black humor connected to Romania. I also believe that humor is something very personal. I don’t think humor relates to a period or a country — it relates to a person. Humor is what people used to survive everything that was going on. It’s not by accident that we have millions of jokes about that period, when people were queuing for things, just as a way of releasing the social pressure.

 

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