risky business

'4 Months,' 1 Palme lift Mungiu's profile

The commercial value of the Palme d'Or, the Festival de Cannes' top prize, fluctuates from year to year. Over the past five years, for every winner that went on to worldwide success — such as 2002's "The Pianist" and 2004's "Fahrenheit 9/11" — there have been films that, however lauded, have barely broken out of the most selective sector of the specialty film market.

2003's "Elephant," from director Gus Van Sant, saw only a limited release in the U.S. before heading to HBO, though it received much more attention abroad. Similarly, 2005's "L'Enfant" and last year's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley" played much more strongly in foreign markets than in the States.

This year's Palme recipient, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," will test its appeal in the U.S. when it's released domestically in January via IFC First Take and Red Envelope Entertainment. But already, the Palme d'Or appears to have cast its halo over the unassuming but riveting film about two women who seek an illegal abortion in communist Romania in 1987.

The ecstatic critical reaction to Mungiu's second feature has elevated the director to the first rank of international filmmakers. Last month, for example, he served on the jury at the Pusan International Film Festival. He also credits his Cannes triumph with earning "4 Months" distribution in more than 60 territories around the world; in France, he says, the film already has attracted more than 300,000 admissions.

Romania's entry in the foreign-language film Oscar category, "4 Months" is viewed by many as the front-runner in that race.

Mungiu didn't set out to create an art film sensation.

The writer-director, born in 1968, witnessed the fall of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. From many conversations with members of his own generation, he says, "I understood that these people wanted to see themselves" on film. When one woman told him her personal story about a harrowing abortion, he was "struck by the emotional potential."

"4 Months" is very much rooted in its historical context — Mungiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu keep their camera focused rigorously on the two protagonists, played by Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu. But details of life under the oppressive regime seep into the film, even though, as Mungiu notes, it "never mentions Ceausescu by name. I never wanted the background to become the substance because too many films for my taste about the communist period are almost nostalgic."

In presenting the finished work to international audiences, the director has found that "people don't necessarily place it in its historical context but tend to see it as something very universal and relevant to today."

Back in Romania, Mungiu's Cannes victory was greeted with celebrations. He received a medal from the president and the key to his hometown. But there are now only about 35 film theaters in Romania because formerly state-run theaters, which folded, have not been replaced. So Mungiu took it upon himself to organize a caravan, equipped with the latest projection equipment, that traveled from town to town for 30 days.

Mungiu is using his new position to mount two more films that, together with "4 Months," will be part of a trilogy looking back at the days of communist rule. He is producing the two films — episodic in nature, both of them will contain three segments each — and has sought out other young Romanian directors to film them.

Mungiu's umbrella title for the trilogy is ironic: "Tales of the Golden Age."