I just saw 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Romanian film focusing on Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, superbly naturalistic as a college student), surviving within the oppression of the Ceausescus' communist control. With dramatic irony, we are aware that the malignant system she endures would end two years later, in 1989.
Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, the film recreates a stifled world where even contraception is outlawed, and danger lurks in any situation, at any time, from anybody. Aside from The Lives of Others, I can't think of a better portrayal of degraded life in Eastern Europe at the end of the 20th century.
The film won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival but was not even a nominee for best foreign film at the Academy Awards, and the theatre where I viewed it was practically empty. Maybe this disconnect is because of a graphic abortion scene, maybe because of the bleak tone.
Anyway, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days sharply reminded me of my visit to Romania, 15 years after the fall of the Ceausescus. The country's infrastructure still appeared dingy and crumbly then, but the mood was politically hopeful. In the film, shoddy Soviet apartment blocks appear in shades of black and gray. On my trip, many were painted over in pastels.
In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the party members and intelligentsia at a birthday celebration eat well enough and obsess about food, while the rest of the frequently coughing citizens make do with black-market leftovers and three-hour queues for a few eggs.
My guide in Bucharest spoke about her constant hunger as a child, and that her starving parents gave up most of their rationed cheese and bread to nourish her while the megalomaniac heads of state built a palace almost as big as the Pentagon, and fountain-studded boulevards wider than those in Paris.
The most resonant film scene for me was Otilia's walk through dark alleyways, frightened when an unknown man steps behind her. It brought to mind my own walk on that Romanian trip when I felt a shadow of the fear she portrays.
Cut to a small town on the Danube, a cloudy spring day. I decide to stroll into the historic center. On this Sunday, late afternoon, few people are out. I head toward a row of leafing trees with fragrant blossoms. I pass an old church, and stop for awhile to watch a wedding ceremony. Roma beggars pester me but I wear no valuables or purse, and I'm dressed in jeans and a tee.
I go on, peering behind to make sure the kids are not following, and after a few minutes fields appear. Nobody is around. Suddenly I hear sharp barking, and see a pack of dogs in the distance, running toward me. No tree nearby to climb, no building to run into. I remember advice I may have heard in Wyoming about dealing with bears. Maybe the correct thing is to stand still, but the instinct is to flee.
I head back as the barking increases. Suddenly a beat-up van stops, and a young man in a grimy shirt leans out, gestures, and asks in Romanian if I want to get in. I don't. I see a headline: "Clueless American Raped and Butchered in Romania by Transylvanian."
Moment of truth. Which is worse, the pack of dogs heading my way, or getting into a car with an unknown man in the middle of nowhere? My version of "The Lady and The Tiger."
I gesture to the man that I'm about to jump on his vehicle, but the dogs pass right by, perhaps with some other prey in mind, like a rabbit or a bird. I have over-imagined things, as privileged American women are prone to.
The man in the van looks annoyed, lingers behind, then catches up and drives slowly next to me as I walk with eyes averted. I walk faster. After a few minutes he finally speeds ahead, leaving me alone in the dust, safe for the moment.
That was just a scary incident remembered, but the film reminded me that for women -- people -- in Romania in 1987, and in Darfur, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Tibet, Iraq, to name just a few regions, unimaginable, mortal fear remains constant today.
By showing the banality of oppression, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, made me appreciate even more our constitution and the need to preserve it. And I resolved as the credits rolled to work really hard in the upcoming election to keep our rights from chipping away.
After the last seven years, the possibility of losing them is not an imaginary fear.