What if it was true?
Almost no one would answer the question on what would happen if abortions WERE outlawed by the State. Would we jail the women? Kill the abortionists? It's out of the question in a civilized nation. Right? Well... not exactly. Communist Romania did outlaw abortion during the 70's and 80's. The reasons were not exactly humanitarian but the end result was that early abortions were punished with a few years in prison and late term abortions, past the 4th month were treated as murders. This is the telling of a (possibly true) story from those years. It's an illustration of what we here, in the States, like to call a `back alley abortion'. The back alley, in this case, is a hotel room, a rather decent one.
The visual environment and the way characters interact are consistent with Romania's impoverished status back in 1987 - there's little color, little hope, few lights at night, little joy. The few extras we see are shown as small, disoriented, defeated people performing absurd or incomprehensible (to us) activities such as wandering aimlessly in the night, lining up in queues or risking whatever was left of their freedom for some meager black market profits. Everyone seems to be indifferent, corruptible, bored, boring, alone, lonely but surprisingly well-mannered, given the circumstances. Had this been a Hollywood production, we might have ended up watching a zombie or a body-snatcher type of a movie but this one was made in East Europe and the Hollywood advisers didn't bother to offer their precious advice so what we see are the memories of a reality not completely dead.
Gabriela (Gabi) is a senior student who shares a dorm room and has a good friend in Otilia. She seems to understand little about the facts of life and, once she turns pregnant, she tries to do what everyone viewed as the `natural' choice those days - end the pregnancy through an abortion.
Otilia is Gabi's roommate and her best friend. She makes everything happen while Gabi is passively waiting for the problem to go away. A senior student, Otilia views her own future either as living a boring life, helping run some remote factory or as a possible housewife following her 'man', making mashed potatoes and maybe playing mommy for him. She is under no illusion that he would ever stand up for her if not doing so was a more convenient or a safer option. Living in a dorm, sharing a room with Gabriela, she has no choice but mature a little. She is dating the son of a more well-to-do family but she doesn't expect much from him beyond some brief moments of intimacy. She feels obligated to help Gabriela because no one else would and, if she didn't, she would be completely alone. She's not only Gabi's friend, she's her mother too because she needs to care about someone and because no one else would volunteer.
Otilia's boyfriend (forgot the name) at 23 or 24 is still his mother's baby. Otilia doesn't trust him with much beyond his ability to provide her with a little intimacy.
Bebe, the abortionist, is a loving son who doesn't forget to stop and make sure that his old, helpless mother is okay on his way to the abortion. He is quite good at what he does. He sterilizes his tools; he is using antibiotics and provides good post-procedure advice. He even offers to make a free follow up visit. He is also demanding some special type of compensation for his services.
Otilia is the main character. All throughout the movie, the camera follows her and all others are relevant to the extent that Otilia interacts with them. This makes sense because she is the only one who DOES anything. Everyone else appears to be devoid of initiative or free will. The plot is simple. Gabi wants to have her (illegal) abortion but she waits for Otilia to do most of the work and take most of the risks. It gets to a point where Otilia accepts having sex with the abortionist as payment for his services. Once the abortion is complete, Otilia helps dispose of the baby and life continues.
Gabriela, the pregnant one, has given up on almost everything. She seems to be willing to allow for "things" to be done for her or to her. She lies and she begs to get by. She is made pregnant, she lets Otilia arrange for her own abortion while she's busy waxing her legs, she lets the abortionist handle her body and she's not afraid because Otilia is there, watching, she doesn't object to his taking his pay by having sex with Otilia. She doesn't demand that Otilia agrees to that `payment' but she begs the abortionist not to leave when Otilia does not appear to be in the mood to pay with her own body. After the baby is aborted, Otilia, again, is the one who disposes of the little body while Gabi goes down to the restaurant, waiting for her return. The frightening suspicion (my suspicion) is that Gabi probably knew what type of `payment' the abortionist was going to demand but she goes along with it all because that option was going to be `cheaper'.
Overall, while `abortion' is what all of this seems to be about, the more subtle and the more frightening aspect is the background and IT is important because this movie is meant to be a snapshot of life `then'. What we see is a nation or a world where meaningful interactions beyond some immediate family ties are close to non-existent. Paradoxically, while the communist utopia called for a society where individuals were perfectly integrated into their communities, what we observe is a caricature Hobbesian world. It's a world were all the good pickings were already picked by some invisible entities and everyone else is struggling for the leftovers and they are allowed to do so for as long as they are not overtly disruptive to the imposed order. The symbolism is subtle but powerful - Otilia walking or running around on her numerous errands, usually at night, always alone, followed by or crossing paths with stray dogs and strangers without faces, the omnipresent policemen, Otilia and Gabi being served leftovers from a wedding at their post-abortion meal. There are no or little moral concerns. Whatever works is good for as long as it works and that includes Gabriela's choice to abort. No one - Gabriela, Otilia, Bebe - ever expresses any second thoughts about the morality of what they were about to do, their concerns seem to be about Gabi's health (infection), the inconvenience of her possibly having to wait for a day or two before the artificial miscarriage takes place and the risks of being caught and punished. Gabi does seem to show some sympathy for her baby AFTER it is all done and the baby lies on the bathroom floor, as she asks Otilia to bury him rather than throw the little body in the trash. It's frightening because the world used to be like that THERE and THEN and it's frightening because, chance areit seems, the world is trending in that direction EVERYWHERE but, hopefully, not FOREVER.
I am giving this movie 5 stars not because the Frenchies gave it their Palme d'Or at Cannes but because this movie is unafraid to discuss topics that us, Americans, not unlike Otilia's boyfriend, can only accept when served to us in the form of brightly-colored sci-fi, make-believe allegories that can't possibly be real. It gets stars for courage, for Anamaria Marinca's (Otilia) acting, for the director's ability to tell a hard to tell, horrifying story.
Little notes: there is no overt violence, there is some brief nudity but sexual activities are not explicitly displayed. The aborted, bloodied fetus is shown. The dialogues are in Romanian with English and Spanish subtitles available. There is no music, sound effects, explosions or any other kind of special effects.
- A short documentary following a German 'movie caravan' that, after the Palme d'Or award, attempted to show the movie to Romanians. The country has only 37-50 movie theaters left, serving about 25 million people.
- An extraordinary, MUST SEE, interview with Writer/Director/Producer Cristian Munjiu, discussing the ethics of cinematographically telling a story.
- An interview with Cinematographer Oleg Mutu.