4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Dir: Cristian Mungiu; *ing: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov
Romania, 1987. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and her college dorm roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are getting ready to undertake a journey. But there is something furtive, something unsettling about their movements, and understandably so. This is no pleasure trip: unwed Gabita is pregnant (hence the title) and the two are preparing to procure a backstreet (or, in this, case, cheap hotel) abortion. But under the totalitarian regime of Nicolae Ceaucescu, where social and personal liberty has no meaning, this is easier said than done. Abortion is illegal for any woman under forty who hasn’t had at least four children already, and the two women find themselves facing odds that range from peculiar (a misplaced hotel booking) to mortifying (Otilia is forced to pay the ‘doctor’ with sex).
For anyone who has seen director Mungiu’s other harrowing piece The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the style and substance of 4 Months… will be familiar: unflinching realism coloured with a spare but haunting palette, subtle performances, and – the clincher – scenes played out in real-time long takes that heighten the pervading sense of paranoia and despair. Watch for the sequence where Otilia attends her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday dinner while Gabita waits in the hotel room to miscarry – Mungiu builds up the tension to an unbearable crescendo by refusing to cut away from the image of Otilia’s growing anxiety as the dinner guests chatter inanely around her. This is an ‘issue’ film made in a way that Hollywood would never dare to employ (yes, I’m looking at you, Crash). There is no cathartic weeping and wailing for Otilia and Gabita for their respective experiences of violation and loss; neither is there any neat, redemptive closure. The film is neither judgmental nor overtly emotional, merely descriptive. Surprisingly, this is where its power lies – in its matter-of-factness, in its focus on the mundane and everyday (and thus all the more ‘real’) rather than anything dynamically ‘cinematic’: Otilia gathering supplies for the trip – soap, toothpaste, cigarettes, tic-tacs (all on the black-market); Gabita waxing her legs, Otilia washing herself after the coerced tryst with the abortionist, Mr. Bebe (another significant touch – ‘bebe’ means ‘baby’ in a number of languages).
Also commendable is the writing of Mungiu’s main characters (they can’t really be called protagonists) but for reasons that may not be immediately obvious. Gabita is no saint, rather, comes across as a manipulative liar who is unwilling to own up to her mistakes. Otilia, too, seems to be a good Samaritan of a pushover who doesn’t know when/how to say no. But first impressions, it turns out, seldom give the whole picture, and by the end, both reveal themselves to be simply all-too human victims – nay, survivors – of a ruthless system that hangs its people out to dry, bringing out the worst – and best – in them.
Of course, this film is not for everyone – it’s not going to get any Feel-good Movie of the Year awards anytime soon, nor will it find fans among those who like their morality tales straight up and free of ambiguity. More than anything else, the subject matter of abortion – legalized or otherwise – is prickly and contentious and a potential polarizer, but in the end it doesn’t really matter which side of the issue you sit on, for 4 Months… is not about abortion at all; it is about the lack – of freedom, of choice, of opportunity. It is also about the fallout of the criminalization of the body, and the darkness that human behaviour can sink into as a result. Romania has seen its lion’s share of the dark, as have other nations who have endured interminable bouts of dictatorship and the ineffectual democracies that have followed, and Cristian Mungiu dares – again – to switch on the light.