Sunday, March 23, 2008

Abortion & Torture At The Movies - Happy Easter Everybody!


As 2 of the most obscure titles my hometown movie-house has had in a long time the following films are hardly crowd-pleasers.

Varsity Theater owner Bruce Stone said on a sparsely attended opening night - “Neither is really THE SOUND OF MUSIC you know?” Still, I recall Roger Ebert's proverb: “No good film is depressing, all bad films are”. With that in mind let's take a look at the films I heard that a fellow co-worker referred to as “a downer double feature”:

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS (Dir. Cristian Mungiu, 2007)


Sadly ignored by American audiences despite being at winner at Cannes and the Golden Globes, this affecting Romanian film had an intense grip on me from the first shot.

That first shot is a cluttered table next to a window in a shabby ass dorm room. The camera pulls back and we are introduced to Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) who appears to be taking care of the every need (buying cigarettes, arranging schedules, etc.) of her room mate Gabriela 'Găbiţa' (Laura Vasiliu). 

It is 1987 in Bucharest, Roma under the Ceauşescu regime - as a 1930's stage narrator would tell us - and Găbiţa is pregnant so a shady meeting is set up with a stranger for an illegal abortion. Every required task for the plan gets botched - the hotel insisted upon is booked, Găbiţa lies about what month her term is (hence the title), and worst of all the man called upon to do the deed, Mr. Bebe played by Vlad Ivanov, an asshole who bullies the women on every point.

There are so many unpleasant draining circumstances that the stressed-out Otilia often has to sit down and regroup. I was right there with her catching my breath. One certain lengthy dialogue-free sequence (don't worry - no Spoilers) has an amazing display of body language entangled with tension. Grueling and degrading as the scene is it has a tone so much more human than in many recent movies. 4 MONTHS... is mostly constructed out of long unbroken shots - very little cutting - which enforces the air of being in the same room not just with these people but their worries and regrets.

A family dinner, an obligation to Otilia's boyfriend (Alex Potocean) that takes her away from the scene of the crime, is as cluttered with folks in the frame as it is crammed with everybody's (some not in the shot but overheard) opinions. 

They pontificate about class relations, whether you'd be arrested if you didn't go to church on Easter, and why young folk shouldn't smoke in front of their elders. The scene by itself could be a great short film with Otilia squirming in a manner that doesn't necessarily need our knowledge of the uneasy background. A dark tale told with natural rhythms and as one character remarked at the dinner scene “a sense of what's real”, 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 WEEKS is a stirring portrait of mislaid agendas. 

Speaking of mislaid agendas: 

TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE (Dir. Alex Gibney, 2007)

Everybody gasped (me included) at the Oscar party I attended when this won Best Documentary over SiCKO and NO END IN SIGHT

At first glance one has to sigh and think “another anti-Bush administration talking heads piece of pop propaganda” and yes, that can be said but watching it such cynicism drops and the picture, as horrifying and disarming it is, becomes frighteningly necessary. In 2002 an Afghan taxi driver named Dilawar is taken into custody by American soldiers. He dies 5 days later after being chained to his cell's ceiling getting his legs pummeled repeatedly by several guards and suffering numerous other forms of assaultive abuse. 

Later it is revealed from leaked documents and press inquiries that Dilawar was innocent and that he and his passengers were “no threat” to American forces. Angering interviews from a few of the soldiers involved as well as the architects of the invasion fit into the framework purposely especially the clip of Dick Cheney a week after 9/11 saying “We have to work the dark side, if you will. We’re going to spend time in the shadows.” 

Another such chilling moment is when one of the accused soldiers says he had never heard of the Geneva Convention before. Rewriting the rules on what defines torture is the slipperiest of slopes as we see over and over what can happen on a ginormous generalized dehumanizing scale. 

We are shown countless disgusting photographs, hear excruciating first hand accounts, and see for the first time on film inside Bagram Air Base where the horrendous activity occurred. Of course none of this sounds like fun but it is one of the most startling and compelling documentaries this side of NO END IN SIGHT. It very much deserved to win the Oscar over that extraordinary film. Gibney's work here has a passion and drive that with hope will gain a bigger audience. 

Since the film was bought by HBO and the Discovery Channel that is sure to happen. TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE must be recognized as not just another damning governmental practices diatribe. It is a film about torture that is not tortuous to watch for it calmly and calculatingly lays out a tale that can not be dismissed. 

Familiar footage of Bush has him stating of terrorists: “wherever they are, we will hunt them down, one by one, until they are no longer a threat to the people who live in the United States of America.” 

One by one the offenses against America that Bush and his cronies have committed pile up into towers that will cast shadows on us all. 

Still thinking of Ebert's proverb I have to write that it is not just depressing that we yet again need a documentary to shine a light on these horrors it makes me miserable that people ignore them when they come around. 

Wake up, open your eyes, and get out of bed America and pay attention or we'll have nothing but films like this. TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE only plays for 4 more days at the Varsity Theater so if you live in Chapel Hill try and make it out to see it.

More Later...

4 comments:

Godard said...

Good stuff. I can see both these films having long Netflix queues as people sign up for them and then let them sit on their TV for a few weeks while they get up the courage to watch 'em.

Monica said...

Loved 4 Weeks... very subtle. I hear the director is saying that the movie is not about abortion but rather about living under a communist dictatorship. It's an interesting thing to think about and I loved the juxtaposition of how easy it was to get illegal cigarettes vs. how hard it was to get an abortion. Do you think the stark, gritty, stereotypical Eastern European settings were too over the top? I thought it was a bit much. But despite that and a few "my-kingdom-for-a-steadycam" moments, the long shots and editing were awesome.

Evan Derrick said...

Just saw 4 Months, Daniel. What a compassionate, piercing film. I couldn't take my eyes off of the screen, except for that one moment where the camera lingers on the bloody towel - I can't remember the last time a film forced me to look away, and I've even seen Salo!

Anil Usumezbas said...

Sadly ignored indeed, even by the Oscars.

I'm curious about the dialogue-free, lengthy sequence you have mentioned though. I have a couple of guesses but I'd like to know which scene in particular you're referring to. You can send me an e-mail if it contains serious spoilers that you don't want to expose here :)

I must say I agree with your observations regarding the film, you've made some accurate points. I also see a lot of similarities between the late Romanian cinema and the Italian neo-realist movement; a notion I have tried to explore in the article I have written for my 'Cannes vs Oscars' series (at least in the second half of it)