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At Home and Abroad

The Savages

Fox Searchlight

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days




The first virtue of The Savages is its daring. Daring, in this case, doesn't mean sensationalism: quite the reverse. The Savages dwells on the far side of the spectrum from sensation, past the middle ground of customary drama, in a mode that dares to be undramatic. Steadfastly, empathically, its method is to take us into several lives for a while, then to let us leave enriched. This method, we don't always remember, is a venerable one in film-making (think of Yasujiro Ozu), and The Savages does it honor. Yet even though this approach is familiar, it still requires bravery.

Second, the writer-director, Tamara Jenkins, quite evidently loves her characters and has treated them with both candor and affection. The two principals are siblings in early middle age. Wendy Savage lives in New York City and is a struggling playwright still hoping for a career. Jon Savage is a professor of drama in Buffalo, working on a book that apparently will justify, to him, his existence. They are brought unwontedly together by a crisis in the life of their father, Lenny. The old man has become cantankerous, trying to mask his deteriorating physical condition with crankiness. The beings of these three people fuse into the being of the film.

Wendy has a private life that is more unshakable than happy. Asked by someone if she is married, she replies, "No, but my boyfriend is." Jon has a paramour whose visits seem to emphasize his loneliness. Lenny has been living in an Arizona household but is no longer wanted there. The brother and sister then have to place their father in a nursing home relatively nearby--while they continue to deal with the difficulties in their own lives. The film brings some changes to both Wendy and Jon, but this is not a chronicle of metamorphosis for either of them: things happen the way that things continue to happen for anyone, cause and effect, cause and effect. An Ozu glimmer arrives eventually--the sense that, through the flow of minutiae, we can get a glimpse of immense human mystery.

This is the quintessence of Jenkins's screenplay. Then Jenkins the director takes over. Visually, The Savages quickly discloses her keen eye. But her prime directing achievement is with the acting. She has cast her picture immaculately. Laura Linney is so complete as Wendy, so unostentatiously immersed in the woman, that we sometimes feel that we are spying. Philip Seymour Hoffman has the blessing-burden of being an actor with a strong personality. Thus he isn't quite as completely submerged in Jon, but what pleasure, what relish, he affords as both actor and character. Guided or at least quickened by Jenkins--who is herself an actress--Linney and Hoffman incise the film as they go with surety and respect. And Jenkins is especially successful with Philip Bosco, playing their father. Bosco, a theater veteran who can be a bit purple on film, here creates a character rather than a performance.

The Savages is the third film that Jenkins has written and directed. (I, alas, missed the first two.) Except for the title, which is somewhat arch, this picture exists by ignoring the conditions of American film-making. It relies on the discerning response of an audience that likes being asked to discern.

Note. Gender-tagging in the arts is usually degrading. ("X is the outstanding female painter of her time.") But it would be mere political correctness to ignore some patent facts. Jenkins is the latest in a line of female writer-directors who have given us fine work in recent years. Sarah Polley (Away From Her), Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know), Jill Sprecher (Thirteen Conversations About One Thing), and Nicole Holofcener (Friends With Money) are four more among many others. I don't infer from their work that a social-cultural surge is carrying female writer-directors to the fore. The film-making situation is too complex for any facile inference. Whatever the reason--if there is a basic reason--I'm just grateful for the result.

Are the clocks different in Romania? Some recent Romanian films imply a relation to time that is something like a swimmer's relation to water--enclosure, support, carriage. These films--The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 East of Bucharest--would have been edited quite differently in America, where time is not an environment but a challenge that the film-maker has to keep meeting. Coarsely one might say that these Romanian films are slow, but their view of time seems as fitting for them as their physical settings. Soon the viewer accepts, very nearly relishes, their adagio tempo. It becomes intrinsic.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days again lures the viewer into this Romanian rhythm. I never expected to see a film in which, at the end, the two leading characters sit facing each other, silent, both of them simply steeped in what has happened to them. Then, but not hurriedly, only after we have understood their silence, the picture ends.

Cristian Mungiu's screenplay, which he directed, concerns two young women who are university students in 1987 and share a room in a dorm. At the start Otilia and Gabita are preparing for a trip, and after a while we learn where they are going and why. The title, it turns out, is the length of time that Gabita has been pregnant, and Otilia is helping her to arrange an abortion. The practitioner, not a doctor, meets them cautiously in a hotel room and, as part of his fee, requires something they had not anticipated.

Otilia, who complies for Gabita's sake, carries most of the film. Besides this compliance, besides all the fussing and arguing and persuasions, her role includes a quick visit to a birthday party for her boyfriend's mother, where she sits at a table in the midst of banal chat while she is riven with worry about Gabita back in that hotel room. At the end of the twenty-four-hour span of the story, Otilia has been through a sort of social-emotional marathon, but it never seems crowded or factitious because of the way that time is taken, is inhabited, all along the way. The very presence of time as environment has a strange effect. It lifts the picture out of the naturalistic into something like expressionism.

We are told that this film has a political intent for Romania. It takes place during the Ceauescu regime, when there were severe laws against abortion (and an estimated 500,000 women died from illegal abortions). Mungio presents most of the details in the ghastly procedure, which, we are to understand, has since been replaced with sanity. But, quite apart from its political weight for Romanians, the picture has its own life in art.

The cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, used a color scheme that is neither garish nor bleak: everything looks like itself, almost pitilessly. The acting follows suit. Vlad Ivanov makes the abortionist the product of circumstances. Laura Vasiliu, as Gabita, mixes pathos with patience. Anamaria Marinca, in the more demanding role of Otilia, meets those demands with an acceptance of things as they are. And one of those things is Romanian time, imperious even in a dingy hotel room.

The title Beaufort is the name of a twelfth-century castle built by the Crusaders in what is now southern Lebanon. In the war that began in 1982, Israeli forces occupied the castle and held it until 2000. Joseph Cedar's film deals with the end of that occupation.

In recent years, the subject of Beaufort was hot in Israeli politics; but, as with the abortion law in the Romanian film above, this aspect is irrelevant to viewers elsewhere. Anyway, Cedar's film is not essentially political: it burrows into the lives and the duties and the very breathing of a small group of soldiers stationed in Beaufort. A network of underground passages has been built in the fort as safeguard against Lebanese mortar fire, and most of the film takes place in those reticulated shadows.

Ofer Inov's camera renders the minimal light especially precious to these soldiers. Cedar has said that his purpose was to concentrate on "the quotidian realities" of their almost underground lives, and with Inov's help, he has done it--so thoroughly that, despite the shellings and the inevitable casualties, I kept thinking of miners. Some good actors, notably Oshri Cohen and Ohad Knoller, deepen this sense of workmen at their jobs. The score by Ishai Adar consists mostly of remote mutterings, as if the Fates were watching and waiting.

The screenplay was adapted by Cedar and Ron Leshem from a novel by Leshem that is based on fact. We know from the start that, fundamentally, we are going to see very little that is new, that we are going to traverse once again a sequence of war-film reactions--from admiration of individual men to renewed hopelessness about mankind vis-a-vis war. Yet the fact that Beaufort takes us forcefully through that sequence again is its validity. The last moments cap it. At the end, when the surviving soldiers are transferred back to their base and we see them for the first time by day, the sunlight is almost ironic. So, if sunlight is irony, the picture has done its job.

Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.

By Stanley Kauffmann