A down-to-earth genius

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu doesn't get inspiration from any particular cinematic movement, but from individual directors instead.

Cristian Mungiu 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Cristian Mungiu 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Director Cristian Mungiu, a very young-looking 40-year-old, stood chatting at a reception at the Jerusalem Cinematheque recently to celebrate the opening of the month-long Romanian film retrospective. The party was filled with Jerusalem's Romanian émigrés and everyone wanted a word with him. He obliged them all graciously as he stood with actress Anamaria Marinca, who starred in his film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. That's the movie that made him a force to be reckoned with on the international film scene, when it won the top honor at Cannes in 2007, the Palme d'Or, beating out the Coen brothers' No Country for Old Men, as well as movies by Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant and Emir Kusturica. Mungiu, on his second visit to Israel, was at the cinematheque that night to introduce his first feature film, Occident, a complex comedy-drama about Romanians' dilemma over whether to emigrate or to try and tough it out in their troubled homeland. After that screening, and in an interview, he answered questions with the enthusiasm of a film student showing his graduation project rather than one of the most celebrated and sought-after directors in the world. 4 Months, which tells the story of a young woman (Marinca) helping her close friend get an illegal abortion during the Ceausescu era, invites philosophical questions and heavy discussions. But Mungiu cautions against finding any simple statements in the film (the title of which refers to the length of time of the pregnancy in the film). "It's not a metaphor for the regime," says Mungiu, over a glass of wine in the cinematheque café. "It's really about the characters, their biographies and motivations, and how the friend in particular is changed by this experience. It's about the truth within the story. It's about decisions in life and crucial moments." The two women have to overcome all kinds of obstacles in order to arrange for the procedure, and Marinca's character is exploited sexually by the abortionist. Anyone looking for a simple moral about abortion will be disappointed, Mungiu acknowledges. "It's not so easy to say abortion is good or abortion is bad. This film makes you look back into this period of history and it's a relative situation. Some things looked different then," he says. The film is based on a story a friend told him that happened to her in 1987, which is when he chose to set the film. While he knew illegal abortion, "which was just about the only birth control available at that time," was common, he had no idea how truly widespread it was until he made the movie. "So many women came to me afterwards and said, 'That's my story,'" he says. "I realized that nearly every woman who is 50 or 60 now has undergone an experience like that." Mungiu, who was around 19 when the Ceausescu era ended, says he remembers the period vividly and hopes that the younger generation can understand "the atmosphere, that constant feeling of oppression, of someone watching. If anyone was abusing you, there was no one to report to." To emphasize this feeling, he filmed in the winter, "so it's always cold, gloomy and depressing," and used natural light and colorless sets as much as possible. WHEN MUNGIU hears that if his interviewer hadn't known the film was made by a male director, she would have assumed the filmmaker was a woman, he asks why. Told that it is rare to see a movie dealing with a woman's experience of abortion made so sensitively by a man, he laughs, saying, "You have a very low opinion of men." After the laughter, he notes, "Things related to feelings are not so different. It's a film about choices, and how you don't control what happens... It's about the profound moments in life that we all have to face; that's what makes it a good story." Although some compared the impact of the film to the work of the mostly Scandinavian "Dogma 95" filmmakers, who make movies according to a manifesto that specifies a set of rules (movies must be made with natural light, in real time, etc.), Mungiu does not align himself with that school. "Who cares about Dogma? Once they made the rules up, it died." He doesn't take inspiration from any particular cinematic movement, but rather from particular directors, such as Milos Forman (during his Czech period), Jim Jarmusch, Bruno Dimont, Francois Truffaut and Woody Allen. He is currently working on a group of linked short films about the "urban legends" of the Ceausescu period, which he is writing and producing but which others will direct. "The side effects of a big dictatorship are sometimes funny and sometimes not," he says. One of these films, for example, will be about a Bucharest policeman at Christmas, who is given a gift of a live pig and tries to slaughter it without alerting his envious neighbors - by gassing the animal. Speaking about the relatively sudden explosion of talent in the Romanian film industry - his colleagues Cristi Puiu, Corneliu Porumboiu and the late Cristian Nemescu have all won major international prizes in the past few years - he acknowledges, "Yes, we all know each other. The competition helps make us all better. They make strongly personal films." Following his Cannes victory, he has had the opportunity to go Hollywood, a temptation he says he will resist. "I have to admit, I haven't seen any mainstream movies that are important in about 10 years or so. These aren't the kind of films that interest me," he says, then heads back to the reception in his honor to talk with more émigrés.