This is an extraordinarily bleak film. You probably know it as the “Romanian abortion movie”. It’s a pretty extraordinary film despite its bleakness and is very close to being a masterpiece, in my opinion. If you haven’t seen it yet – it took me nearly 14 years for some reason – I would recommend it if you can handle it.
From the opening shots, it’s very clear Mungiu knows what he’s doing. Though only his second feature (as far as I can tell), this is clearly the work of someone who knows how to make films. It is masterfully shot and is full of the kind of shots that are my catnip – shots where the camera stays still as characters move about, sometimes completely out of frame. The film has no score, of course, and the combination of the way it is shot and the lack fo music make for some very tense moments, some very funny moments (though they are, of course, blackly funny) and some moving moments. As a film, it’s a pretty masterful example of the neo-realist style. Fewer cuts and no music can make an otherwise okay film great. That’s not the case here obviously – this might be a good movie shot another way – but the style is fantastic.
The choice to tell the story through the friend rather than pregnant woman is an interesting one but likely an necessary one. A film of just a woman lying on a bed for hours wouldn’t be very good. And Marinca is excellent in her role. It’s a choice that allows the movie to move from place to place and I think it mostly works.
Where I quibble with it, and the film as a whole, is in how wrapped up in her own suffering Otilia is. Though she is necessary as a star – and though an awful thing does indeed happen to her – some of the sheer awfulness of illegal abortions is mitigated and, at times, nearly forgotten because of the film’s focus on her feelings and her ambivalent feelings towards Gabita. Gabita is, after all, the woman who is having the abortion. And though it is realistic that Otilia might feel this way towards her, it also tends to focus the film, at times, on Otilia’s feelings about her life and her body, rather than on Gabita and her feelings. And I think that’s the one way in which this film isn’t truly great. Gabita is too flighty – she’s not a great character and it’s easy to care less about what is happening to her than to Otilia, who is going through hell too, but arguably not quite as much hell as Gabita. (Depending on your perspective of course. You could argue what Otilia has to do to help Gabita is worse than what happens to Gabita, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree. I’m just trying to say that I think the focus on the film should be on Gabita just a little more, and that Gabita shouldn’t be so useless.)
But this is a minor quibble. It’s very well shot, it’s well edited, the actors are good, the sense of place is excellent, and it is occasionally darkly funny (mostly in the dinner scene). It is also infuriating. And it is a film that should be mandatory viewing for every single person who presumes to know what a woman should do with her body. If you think abortion should be illegal, you should have to sit through this film.