Movie Love

Rare screenings of Béla Tarr and this year’s Cannes-winner from Romania.

The Man From London

I used to be a cinephile. Now, I’m a movie critic. That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped loving movies—the day that unlikely eventuality ever comes to pass, I hope I’ll have the good sense to quit. But a professional reviewer is, as it were, married to the movies: We wake up with them every day, we expect something from the films we see and owe them something in return. A cinephile, on the other hand, is a romancer of movies, driven by passion and curiosity from one infatuation to the next, free to abandon, excoriate, outgrow, or rediscover whatever drifts her way.

It’s a magnificent obsession, and one that’s getting harder to pursue, at least on the big screen. As repertory houses close and Netflix expands, a taste for nonnarrative avant-garde shorts or Brazilian cinema novo or Chinese melodramas of the ‘50s and ‘60s is becoming something you develop at home in front of your TV or computer screen, if you develop it at all. But at this year’s  New York Film Festival, that most cinephilic of festivals, there’s a chance to explore all of the above, in addition to the big headliner pictures with actual distribution deals (The Darjeeling Limited, I’m Not There, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead).

So this week I blew off a screening of The Heartbreak Kid (wisely, it seems), rescheduled another, and sneaked off to the festival for a fling with two wildly uncommercial, but wonderful, Eastern European films. One of them, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, won the grand Palme d’Or prize at Cannes this year, but it will have only limited distribution when it opens in January 2008, perhaps because it comes from a place Americans rarely think about (Romania) and treats a subject we would rather avert our eyes from (illegal abortion).

But 4 Months, directed by Cristian Mungiu, is no earnest, socially conscious “problem” film; it’s a beautiful and formally compelling work of art. Like last year’s Romanian export, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (with whom it also shares a whiz of a cinematographer, Oleg Mutu), 4 Months takes place in the course of a single day and documents the struggle of one individual to procure health care, or whatever passes for it in a poor country with a crumbling infrastructure and rampant corruption. 4 Months is set in the final years of the Ceausescu dictatorship, when abortion was a punishable crime for all involved. A pregnant college student (Laura Vasiliu) conscripts her roommate (Anamaria Marinca) to help find an abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) and to rent a hotel room as a hide out until the procedure is complete.

This is one of those movies where it’s best not to know too much going in: You find out everything you need to know slowly, without much dialogue, in long takes filmed by an unobtrusively mobile camera. What emerges is a scorching indictment of the stupidity of criminalizing abortion—Mungiu makes it clear, without ever spelling it out, that the state might as well outlaw sex itself—and also a moving, and thoroughly unidealized, portrait of a female friendship.

Unless you keep a close eye on movie listings at museums and universities, you probably won’t be able to seeThe Man From London, the latest enigmatic hunk of celluloid from the great Hungarian director Béla Tarr. It’s not his best film—if you’re discovering him for the first time, you’d do better to rent Damnation or his seven-hour masterpiece, Satantango. But when you’re talking about Tarr’s work, “best film” is a pretty high bar to set. The Man From London still feels like no other film that you’ve seen before. It’s cerebral and lugubrious, yet simple as a fairy tale.

The Man from London follows a railroad track-switcher, Maloin (Miroslav Krobot), who witnesses from his tower one man killing another over a briefcase full of British pounds, then flees without taking the money. Maloin retrieves the briefcase, hides it away, and returns home to his angry, miserable wife (a bizarrely cast, Hungarian-dubbed Tilda Swinton) and dejected daughter (Erika Bok.) When a “famous English inspector” (Istvan Lenart) arrives to investigate the case, Maloin finds himself under suspicion, but the investigation is strangely vague—does the inspector really want to find the killer, or does he just want to keep the money for himself? This sounds like a thriller plot, but The Man From London is deliberately and rigorously unthrilling. It’s less interested in story than in allegory, as that hidden suitcase of cash becomes a symbol for the corrosive power of human greed.

Based on a George Simenon novel, The Man From London is the closest thing Tarr has done to a genre film. His signature visual style—stark black-and-white images, with fluid, seemingly endless takes and a hypnotic accordion score—shares some traits with film noir, and there are moments here that seem meant to evoke The Third Man. But Tarr’s project isn’t Postmodern or nostalgic; it’s mythic. His movies, even the imperfect ones, feel somehow inevitable, as if carved out of stone. Once you enter into their grave, melancholy rhythm (and stepping into the theater from the frenzy of modern life, that’s no small order), you’re captivated, and astonished once again by what cinema can do.