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Behind the Curtain

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Time Flies by in Cristian Mungiu's'4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days'

The honor of the 2007 European Union (EU) Film Showcase’s opening night film at the AFI Silver Theatre went to “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” Beforehand, The Washington Diplomat sat down with young Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, whose background is actually in advertising.

His film—about an illegal abortion in 1987 Romania behind the Iron Curtain—won the Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, a coup for the Romanian New Wave. In fact, Mungiu didn’t shoot the film until the last moment possible to get it ready for Cannes, cobbling together the bare minimum of money from the Romanian government, France and Germany to complete the project.

Asked what it was like to win, he modestly replied, “Well, if you had asked me months beforehand, I would have said you’re crazy. Before Cannes, we had a preview screening just for buyers at Rotterdam [Netherlands]. So during the week of Cannes, buzz slowly built up that we were a leading contender. And then we won, which was almost expected at that point.”

Discussing the Romanian New Wave, Mungiu praised the film movement for its candid, real-life style: “First of all, I believe these people have stories to tell. And they know how to respect the story and how to tell it simply and honestly without trying to look smart. Often screenwriters tend to look for a ‘special’ story as the subject of their films while Romanian authors tend to see what is relevant in the everyday common things that happen around them,” the director explained.

“And they learn to ‘relate’ the story and not to ‘comment’ upon it. They abstain from being spectacular in favor of being believable,” he added. “Also, they try to develop their own personal style of shooting a particular story. All this together makes Romanian New Wave films quite personal, powerful and different from the art-house mainstream. It also has something to do with the way we work: We are all not only writers and directors, but also producers. So we have—within the limits of our small budgets—the freedom to decide fully about the nature of the film.”

Certainly, Mungiu’s description applies to his own film, whose screenplay about a young woman helping a friend through an abortion “starts from the kind of personal experience that people usually don’t share with others. Something unexpected happened with the people who came in contact with my story,” Mungiu said. “Once they heard it, they had a personal story of this kind to share. All of a sudden, everybody had something to say about this topic. I was amazed to discover how common yet hidden such stories are. Talking to people, I learned the most horrible of stories. I didn’t use them in the film—I just followed the story I knew best—but they helped me understand how widespread the phenomenon was.

“I tried to make a film about my characters and about my story and not about the period,” the director continued. “I wanted the period to be always just the context and not the subject of the film. I tried to respect and recreate realities as much as I could but not to push stereotypes and landmarks of late communist times in front of the camera. Objects of that period are all there in the film but in the background.”

Rather, the goal was to keep the attention on the characters themselves, and to achieve that, Mungiu collaborated with his cinematographer Oleg Mutu to see what style would best serve the story.

“We decided to keep things as sober as possible and to eliminate as much as possible anything that could be seen as staged or conventional,” Mungiu explained. “We didn’t use a tripod but neither did we use a steadicam. We didn’t use dollies or cranes. We decided to shoot one shot per scene and to allow the actors to use the space behind the camera…. We dropped, little by little, everything that could be considered too ‘nice’ or too staged, including the beautiful snow falling at the end of the last shot. We tried to focus on capturing emotion and truth.”

And to capture that emotion, Mungiu had high expectations for his actors. “I insist that actors know their lines by heart in absolute detail,” he said. “I give them the chance to make their comments on the dialogue when we rehearse. I act for them. If I can’t speak a line convincingly, it means there is something wrong with that line and I drop it. Once they know the text, I start dropping letters from their pronunciation to make the dialogue sound as much as possible like natural spoken language. Sound people detest me—I encourage my actors to whisper if it helps them deliver the lines more naturally than to act with a strong voice that can be easily recorded.”

The technique apparently worked. “If I am absolutely pleased about anything in my film, it is the acting,” Mungiu concluded. “A comment I received after the first informal screening of the film was also the best compliment for me so far: Somebody mentioned that if you listen to the characters in the film from another room, they sound like people talking in home videos.”

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999