In order to mourn the passing of the Humanist and Historian Tony Judt, the New York Review of Books decided to republish an essay of his about the Polish writer Czeslaw Milosz. In this piece, Judt draws particular attention to Milosz’s invocation of the concept of Ketman. Ketman, originally an Islamic concept referring to a person’s capacity to pay public lip-service to the worldview of political authority whilst maintaining a private opposition to that world-view, was used by Milosz to explain how it was that Communism continued to hold sway over entire populations despite its myriad hypocrisies and impracticalities. Judt then goes on to argue that American college students struggle with the concept of Ketman:
Why would someone sell his soul to any idea, much less a repressive one? By the turn of the twenty-first century, few of my North American students had ever met a Marxist. A self-abnegating commitment to a secular faith was beyond their imaginative reach.
Judt then points out that market capitalism holds a similar sway over the West as Communism once did over the East. We all know that capitalism is horribly flawed. We all know that it makes some people disgustingly rich while denying even the most basic necessities to billions of others. We know this and yet we simply cannot imagine what it would be like to live without the Market.
In Margaret Thatcher’s deathless phrase, “there is no alternative.”
Set during the final years of Romania’s Ceauşescu regime, Christian Mungiu’s 4 Luni, 3 Săptămâni şi 2 Zile is an exploration of what it is like to be held between two equally dehumanising intellectual systems. Intellectual systems that demand complete ideological loyalty despite both being horrifically flawed.
If the Romanian New Wave were a movement in Science Fiction rather than art house cinema, we would be calling it Corridorpunk. Mungiu’s film opens with a snapshot of life at a Romanian university. The students live in cramped rooms and, rather than studying, seem to spend their days wandering down endless corridors in search of some basic consumer good: Cigarettes, soap, leg wax, video cassettes, sweets. All of these are available to you if you have the money and you know where to go. Such is the beauty of the market.
Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is a hugely competent science student. She navigates the university’s network of supply and demand without any difficulty. She knows every dodge and every source. She even knows what to do when she is caught without a ticket on public transport. Otilia shares a room with Găbiţa (Laura Vasiliu). Gabi is not what you would call competent. In fact, she is a complete and utter idiot. Having managed to get herself knocked-up, Gabi enlists Otilia to help her secure an illegal abortion. Otilia has to borrow the money, find a hotel room and meet with the beautifully named back-street abortionist Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Otilia’s skillset is such that she should be able to organise all of this without too much difficulty but at every stage Otilia finds herself having to work around the failings of the Communist system she lives under.
When she turns up at the hotel where Gabi booked a room, she is informed by a magnificently unpleasant and disinterested clerk that nobody bothered to write down the booking. To an audience that never lived under Communism, this sequence is farcical, not only does the hotel clerk seem completely incompetent but she also seems to be taking a real joy in denying Otilia (and, by extension the hotel) the opportunity to engage in a business transaction. This scene in which the values of a self-perpetuating Communist regime clash with the ‘right-functioning’ capitalistic model foreshadows the relationship between customer and client that will come to dominate the film.
Having found a room at a different hotel, Otilia meets up with the abortionist only to realise that Gabi has been lying through her teeth. Not only has she been lying to Otilia about getting things organised, she has also been lying to the abortionist about how far along her pregnancy is. Gabi is lying because she is stupid. She is lying because she is ashamed. She is ashamed because not only are abortions illegal, they are also seen as morally wrong.
The fact that Ceauşescu’s Romania was a very conservative country is made clear through Otilia’s relationship with her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean) who insists that she must come to his mother’s birthday party. She must come not because it is a nice thing to do but because it is expected of her. Having left Gabi alone in the hotel room to await the expulsion of her unborn child, Otilia attends the birthday party looking as though it is she who is about to expel a foetus. She is uncomfortable not only because she is worried about her friend but also because her boyfriend’s family and friends embody very traditional gender roles: the men are all professional and the women are all stay-at-home house wives. Both sets of people vociferously complain about the morals of the younger generation and how outrageous it is that a young woman would dare to smoke in front of her boyfriend’s family. When Otilia finally escapes the dinner, she confesses to Adi where she is going and Adi says that he disagrees with abortion because it is dangerous. Were Otilia to get pregnant, they would immediately marry. Needless to say, Otilia is not impressed.
The most interesting relationship in the film is the one between Otilia and Mr. Bebe. Otilia arrives at the hotel room in full command of her faculties and what she believes to be the facts. However, she soon realises that Mr. Bebe is not just a business man. He talks about safety and he talks about trust. When Otilia tries to convince him to take more money because Gabi is further along than initially claimed, he becomes incredibly angry. Attempts to placate him using the bureaucratic methods of Communism (such as letting him have their IDs) prove equally annoying. Mr. Bebe does not fit into the traditional values of Gabi or the capitalistic values of Otilia. They struggle to deal with him because neither of them are capable of adapting to his (admittedly alien) way of seeing the world. Both know that their worldviews are incomplete, flawed and naïve but Mr. Bebe’s personalised pragmatism lies, in Judt’s terms, beyond their imaginative reach.
In a beautiful final scene, the two women sit in a deserted restaurant as a traditional Romanian wedding takes place in the room next-door. We can see the lights through a window and we can hear the music but it all seems so far away. Because of their actions, Gabi and Otilia are shut out of that much warmer and more welcoming world. Hoping to put it all behind them, Otilia says that the pair will never speak of the events of that night again. Lip-service must be paid to the existing Communistic powers and to the emerging powers of Capitalism. They know that both systems are flawed. They know that both systems are incomplete. They know that both systems are dehumanising. But maybe if they don’t talk about those failings then those failings will just disappear. That is Ketman.