Rates: * * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Palm d’or winning modern classic.
In the Communist Romania of the 1980s, a young university student, Gabita, falls pregnant. She does not want the baby but abortion is illegal, so she enlists her friend, Otilia, to her help access one on the black market. They turn to a shady character recommended by one of their friends, who outlines what is required; rent a hotel room, come alone, bring his money. He will bring the equipment and perform the ‘procedure’. Simple enough instructions, but everything about this transaction is ill fated. Things are about to get ugly.
There are few topics as likely to provoke a response as abortion, and Christian Munjiu’s intense, Palm D’Or winning drama tackles it head on. Presented are the consequences of making abortion against the law: the practice does not go away, but is merely driven underground, to be supervised by untrained and ill equipped criminals. Gabita faces an impossible choice, foisted on her by the society she lives in; have a baby she cannot care for, and see her future prospects impacted, or put her life and freedom in the hands of a sleazy stranger. Women everywhere face this choice daily, where their rights are not protected.
The film makes this point in a broader political framework. The system defending the sanctity of life here is the reviled Ceausescu regime; Nikolai Ceausescu was a Soviet backed dictator who was like a mini Stalin, maintaining power through a network of secret police, concentration camps and corruption. For this government to outlaw abortion on moral grounds was pure hypocrisy. This highlights how the debate over reproductive rights usually works; you find these restrictions are often pushed by male political leaders, who never have to face the consequences of their legislation. Double standards are not limited to dictatorships.
While the film is potent, and often grimly upsetting, Mungiu and his co-screenwriter, Răzvan Rădulescu, are skilful enough to add other elements. The two main characters are long term friends, and roommates, and their relationship seems very real; they bicker with one another, and get frustrated, they snipe and bemoan each other’s faults. Sometimes they even banter. It creates a sense of the connection these women have, living through this testing experience, able only to rely on each other. A nuanced and subtle view of friendship. Annamaria Marinca (Otilia) and Laura Visiliu (Gabita) are both phenomenal.
The film utilises a lot of hand held camerawork, which effectively puts you in a series of tense situations. Several scenes are very confronting, and they leave an impact; you are trapped right there with the two main characters. The film was shot on location in Bucharest, and the city forms a striking backdrop. The plot unfolds in a number of large scale, Soviet era buildings, now quite dilapidated; a crowded and shambolic university dorm, a threadbare hotel. However the leaders of this state view themselves, the evidence of their failure is all around them; the whole place is crumbling into ruin. Even simple tasks like buying a pack of cigarettes, or renting a hotel room, are tortuously complex.
All of the different elements combine to deliver a series of indelible scenes. This film has both emotional impact, and an intellectual perspective. And a palpable sense of relief, at the end. Sometimes, the best you can hope for in a terrible situation is just to make it through. Quite an experience.