4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days rides the Romanian New Wave.

Bleak truths in a stellar foreign film — plus American indie Snow Angels.

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click to enlarge LET'S GET THIS BLOC PARTY STARTED! Set during the late 1980s, 4 months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days presents a dour view of life in Romania under communist rule. - Ifc First Take
Ifc First Take
LET'S GET THIS BLOC PARTY STARTED! Set during the late 1980s, 4 months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days presents a dour view of life in Romania under communist rule.

While the Iranians and South Koreans were duking it out over who gets to be world cinema's top dog this year, those pesky Romanians waltzed in and stole the title from under both their noses.

It's not like this was totally unexpected. The writing was on the wall a few seasons ago, when critics began genuflecting before the wry, Romanian slice-of-life The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and last year's slyly mocking 12:08 East of Bucharest wasn't too shabby either. But this year's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days pretty much makes it official. There's a Romanian New Wave out there, so learn to surf it or get out of the way.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which won Cannes' coveted Palm d'Or and way too many other awards to mention, shares a steely, borderline glum world-view with its fellow Romanian films, but writer-director Christian Mungiu never allows his movie, or us, to plunge into the abyss. Mungiu's characters may be so beaten down they're barely in touch with their own emotions, but the director teases such raw authenticity from the lives on screen that the film achieves a power transcending its neo-miserablist trappings.

Of all the old Soviet Bloc countries, Romania may have been the one most severely traumatized by its experience under communism, and young Romanian directors have been obsessed with systematically exorcizing the demons of that era. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days takes place during the final soul-crushing years before the Iron Curtain fell, in 1987, when goods are scarce, virtually every aspect of personal freedom has become constricted and tightly regulated, and life under the tyrant Ceausescu has grown all but unbearable. We enter this world through a college dorm where roommates Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) make nervous small talk, ticking off a list of items they'll need for a trip they're planning.

It eventually emerges that Otilia (the practical one of the pair) is helping her roommate arrange for a clandestine, highly illegal abortion, and the first part of the film follows her as she tries to work the system, bartering for black-market toothpaste, bribing petty officials and arguing with unpleasant hotel clerks about lost reservations. Mungiu's vision of mundane, multilayered, old-school commie bureaucracy rings with truth, but it's so absurdly bleak, its tragedy is very nearly comic, a two-bit circle of hell where existence has become so dully oppressive that the inhabitants can barely muster the desire to speak above a monotone.

4 Months unfolds as an accumulation of details, and when Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the abortionist, finally makes his appearance, delivering a monotonous recitation of yet more facts before turning nasty and exacting his pound of flesh, the film puts a human face on the banality of evil. The dialogue is unfailingly naturalistic; cinematographer Oleg Mutu (who also shot Mr. Lazarescu) somehow manages to always place his camera in exactly the right spot, alternating long, static shots with precisely calibrated handheld work; and the film's use of real time is captivating. Without a single explosion or car chase in sight, Mungui's movie feels like a thriller in slow motion, revealing in firm but measured strokes the escalating urgency just beneath its surface.

Just one caveat. Given the nature of local booking patterns, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days may be a bit difficult to track down by the time these words appear in print. At the time of writing this review, the film is only playing at a handful of venues in the area, and — given the predilection of even our most dedicated local theaters for bubbly pap like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day over anything with subtitles or challenging ideas — it's anyone's guess how long a film as good as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days will survive in the depths of Florida.

There's plenty of suffering going in Snow Angels too, although it's all a day at the beach compared to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. At least the broken families and disappointed lovers in Snow Angels know that even if love isn't all you need, it does sometimes help.

This is the latest project from David Gordon Green, acclaimed writer-director of the lyrical, low-key indies George Washington and All the Real Girls. Snow Angels is a slight departure, showing us the filmmaker working in a somewhat feistier, more plot-driven mode. The film presents us with a rich, almost Altman-esque tapestry of loosely interwoven lives, although the primary focus is on Annie (Kate Beckinsale), a small-town waitress raising a young daughter while deflecting the advances of her loose-cannon ex-husband (Sam Rockwell), a booze-battling born-again with a few demons of his own.

Paralleling the waitress's story is that of Arthur (Michael Angarano), a cherubic teen who washes dishes at Annie's restaurant and who eases the pain of his parents' messy break-up by hanging out with a quirky new girl at school (Olivia Thirlby). The kids' sweetly offbeat romance is the muted highlight of Snow Angels; otherwise, there's so much narrative crammed in here that the weight is almost too much for the film's delicate frame to bear. The landscape-loving Green puts his evocative northern locales on almost equal terms with the humans, but the director's gentle, poetic style sometimes seems at a loss before the characters' overheated behavior.

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