March 29, 2009 -- I finally got around to seeing this 2007 movie recently. Actually, It wasn't released on video in this country until near the end of 2008, so I'm not all that late. This film won a number of international awards and received a lot of praise, justly so. I checked out the DVD from the University of Wyoming's library, which has greatly expanded its video collection with and influx of oil money. This is a powerful film, even more instructive about the horrors of governmental attempts to over-regulate abortion rights than the most famous previous film on the subject, Vera Drake.
For those of you who think rigid government control of abortion is impossible in the United States, or that it is an issue somehow illevant in modern times, you could not be more wrong on both counts. It is an issue not as far removed as you might think. A few examples: The recent administration of George Bush stacked the courts with anti-abortion judges, including on the U.S. Supreme Court. Abortion laws once declared unconstitutional may suddenly become valid. The Terri Schiavo case and the recent California vote on Proposition 8 indicates that there is support for government attempts to intervene in personal and family health matters and even in personal contracts between adults. In Brazil, which is a modern society in most ways, there are very strict abortion laws. Abortion is only allowed in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is at risk. Recently, a nine-year-old girl who was pregnant with twins, the result of incest, received an abortion in Brazil. A Brazilian archbishop excommunicated the doctors who performed the abortion and the mother of the girl, but he did not excommunicate the stepfather of the girl, who was later arrested on charges of raping the girl and her sister. The girl, who weighed only 79 pounds and was only a little over four feet tall, was in no shape to deliver twins. Doctors said her uterus was too small even to support one baby. But that's Brazil, not the U.S., right? The South Dakota Legislature recently passed an anti-abortion law even more extreme that Brazil's, one which makes no exceptions for incest, rape or the health of the mother. Under that law, the above 9-year-old incest victim would have to carry the twins to term, even it killed her. All that is needed to make that kind of extreme law legal is a favorable U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
Enough ranting. Back to the movie. The story is set in Romania in 1987. It is a Communist country where abortion has been outlawed. A young girl, Gabriela 'Gabita' Dragut is seeking an abortion. Her college roommate, Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca) is helping her, even though she could be jailed for doing so. Gabriela wimps out on a planned meeting with the underground abortionist, Viarel 'Domnu' Bebe. Otilia fills in for her and a meeting is set up in a hotel. Bebe is unhappy about the meeting and the hotel, but shows up anyway. There is a lot of arguing over how much Bebe is to be paid and how long Gabriela has been pregnant. She tells Bebe she has only been pregnant for two months, but it is really more like four months, three weeks and two days. Bebe forces the two women into some very tough moral compromises before he finally agrees to do the abortion. Otilia ends up having to give up a lot more than she should have had to in order to help her friend.
In the middle of everything else, Otilia has to leave the hotel room where the abortion is performed to attend a family gathering with her boyfriend. There, she admits what she has been up to and has a big argument with her boyfriend about abortions. Gabriela and Otilia seem to have a closer relationship than many family relationships. Otilia returns to the hotel room. There are some shattering scenes later related to the abortion.
Director Cristian Mungiu makes effective use of fairly static camera setups, in addition to some hand-held shots, to give the film a documentary feel. For instance, during the family dinner scene, the camera does not pan upwards when someone stands up. The camera stays put. It is as if the audience is seeing the scene through a window. The lack of camera movement is a very effective way to make the film seem more realistic. A similar technique was used by the great Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu in his films. It is a camera technique based on the idea that movies can presented like plays, with a fixed field of reference. This technique, combined with long takes, increases the audience's sense of voyeurism. It feels as though the audience is peering into other lives through a portal, as opposed to actually becoming a participant in the action on the screen. Techniques such as rapid camera movements, point of view and 3D cinematography can increase the sense of participation.
As is made clear in the extras on the DVD, Mungiu's camera techniques are very carefully thought out in this film and they are very effective. This is a powerful film on the abortion issue, primarily because it is told so strongly from the point of view of the two women involved. This film rates a B.
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