The story of two college girls negotiating the treacherous currents of a drab police state to secure an illegal abortion, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a movie one watches in a state of mounting dread. Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu's brilliantly discomfiting second feature is one long premonition of disaster.
Set in 1987, two years before the downfall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, 4 Months moves from the shabby clutter of an overcrowded college dorm, through the dimly lit streets of a provincial city, to a rundown Stalinoid deco hotel, with a memorable detour to the cramped bourgeois apartment where a middle-aged woman celebrates her birthday. The dreariness is electric . . . with suspicion. The world teems with black-market hustles. Quotidian ID checks and ticket inspections punctuate the action, as bureaucratic snafus and quid pro quo deals enhance the jitters. This is a society where not much works and everything, even closing a car door, is a hassle.
Thin and nervous, pregnant Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) seems to have ignored her condition for as long as possible; she's helplessly distracted, leaving her more responsible roommate, the stolid, steady Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to handle every detail. Anxiety begins when Otilia attempts to book a hotel room for the clandestine procedure. Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the 2005 tour de force which put the new Romanian cinema on the map, 4 Monthsfilmed in handheld 35mm by Lazarescu's director of photography, Oleg Mutudramatizes a particular process. With virtually every scene shot in a single setup, the movie feels like it's unfolding in real time.
For all its long behavioral takes, 4 Months is remarkably unshowy. The movie is as drained of color as the girls' faces. Daily life is a hellish adventure. Where Lazarescuwas an exceedingly dark comedy, 4 Months is a shockingly matter- of-fact horror film. For one thing, the procrastinating Gabita is openly terrified. She doesn't know much and, her squeak of a voice increasingly timid, lies about what she does knowa form of denial as pitiful as the homemade pastries she brings to her abortionist, the bizarrely named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). He wears the leather jacket of a secret-police thug, and given the power he wields, could almost be one. To say that this depressed, volatile predator, who keeps a switchblade in his toolkit, is without bedside manner is to say the leasthe works as much for "love" as money.
4 Months is discreetlyand then shockinglygraphic. Negotiations with Mr. Bebe take an appalling turn. The abortion is the ultimate violation of Gabita's bodyand not just hers. The procedure is shown in an unflinching single take. How do these Romanian actors train? As in Lazarescu, the ensemble scenes are mind-boggling, and the principle performances get at an authenticity beyond naturalism. Marinca's alert, open face is the screen for a remarkably inward performance. Although at one point the freaked-out Otilia, pale with exhaustion and close to panic, berates her selfish friend, she is usually alone with her thoughts. 4 Months brings this home in the movie's most stressful scene, when Otilia leaves Gabita and travels halfway across town to arrive (late) at a birthday dinner with her (furious) boyfriend's parents, whom she is meeting for the first time.
Complete with an alarmingly unanswered ringing phone, the sequence is sensationally excruciating. Otilia is not only sandwiched between her elders and trapped in inane conversation but squeezed under the microscope of their continual surveillance. The class, gender, and generational alienation is palpable, exceeded only by the larger confinement in which Otilia finds herselfsomething for the viewer to ponder as she manages to flee the apartment for the dog-barking, bottle-smashing sinister murk of the Romanian evening.
Otilia's journey to the end of the night is best experienced without additional detailalthough, having seen it twice, I'd say that one's identification with her situation is so strong that even knowing the upshot, the tension remains. By any standard, 4 Months is a white-knuckle deal. Is there an audience?
Among other things, 2007 was the year of the abortionor perhaps we should say the abortion-not. 4 Months came out of nowhere at Cannes to win the Palm d'Or, beating No Country for Old Men and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and, on the basis of festival screenings and a week-long qualifying run in Los Angeles, finishing fourth in the Village Voice film critics' poll.
Tony Kaye's Lake of Fire, which opened at Film Forum in October, was one of last year's best-reviewed documentariesalthough that hardly translated into box-office success. This provocatively gorgeous and unsparing account of the Manichean battle between the forces of choice and those of life barely lasted a week onscreen. The movies people really wanted to see were Knocked Up, Juno, and, to a lesser degree, Waitress, all of which portrayed an unwanted pregnancy as an essentially comic situation.
Comedy is the operative term. Had the protagonists been poor, black, illegal, or Jamie Lynn Spears, the movies necessarily would have been more serious and scarcely as much funbut that's not even the point. Neither 4 Months nor Lake of Fire can be easily enlisted as pro-choice or pro-life. But both are realistic. They articulate the tragic aspects of an unwanted pregnancy while acknowledging that the burden of tragedy is borne by women and enforced by men. Abortion was made illegal in Romania in 1966; by the time Ceausescu was overthrown 23 years later, an estimated half-million women had died as a result of botched illegal abortions. The nation's overflowing orphanages were notorious for their subhuman conditions.
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