- Cristian Mungiu
- Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, Ion Sapdaru
- 113 min.
- Release Date
Appalling are epochs in human history when the human body becomes subject to or object for government control. Set in the last years of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign over Communist Romania, which ended in 1989, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days tells the story of an abortion. While you might think such a film would center on the mother terminating the unwanted pregnancy, illegal at the time in Romania, writer-director Cristian Mungiu instead puts the responsibility on a close friend, someone who ultimately has no choice but to take control.
Ceauşescu placed restrictions on abortions and contraception, controlling the Romanian citizens’ right to choose. Such laws were upheld by the “Securitate” or SS-like secret police we hear mentioned in panicky conversations during the film, but never see. With Ceauşescu’s superfluous spending and uncalled-for food rationing, the Romanian people relied heavily on the Black Market for their goods, since few other markets were as stocked. Currency was all but useless next to Kent cigarettes, which we see traded back and forth in Mungiu’s film. Times were desperate, calling for desperate measures.
Inept and irresponsible, pregnant twentysomething student Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) might be the most frustrating movie character in recent memory. Unable to follow simple instructions or take action when necessary, she relies on her close friend, Otilia (played by Anamaria Marinca, in an emotionally draining performance), to arrange the entire abortion. Otilia borrows the hefty sum for the process, books a hotel room where the illegal operation will take place, meets with the wasteland abortionist, and takes further punishment that I won’t mention within this review.
Meanwhile, Gabita has no answers and insists she’s only two months pregnant when the film’s title infers otherwise. Given specific commands by the weary and quickly sadistic pseudo-doctor Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), Gabita all but ignores them, thrusting Otilia into a dangerous situation without ever considering the intelligent thing to do or potential repercussions to her actions. Though at first Gabita’s stupidity is a mere inconvenience (dealing with snooty hotel clerks), when Mr. Bebe’s true colors are shown, her inaction results in severe fallout for both she and, unfortunately, Otilia.
But this film isn’t solely about plot or how the story develops. Along with his cinematographer Oleg Mutu, Mungiu constructs a minimalist filmic poem by way of long, pensive takes, not one strum of accompanying soundtrack, and a camera that refuses to look away. Each scene is comprised of only a few cuts, if any, following Otilia for long expanses of time in a natural, cinematic style. The camera doesn’t flow like the elongated tracking shots in Atonement; instead, we barely notice these long takes until a cut occurs, at which point we attempt to remember when the last one transpired, but cannot.
There are scenes so painfully stationary we wish the camera would move, and yet, what a revelation that they do not—Mungiu forces us to stay and watch the suffering onscreen. One such sequence occurs just after the abortion procedure has begun. In these particularly sobering moments, Otilia must meet her boyfriend’s family for the first time; she sits at the dinner table with loud and chatty strangers talking around her, ignoring her. This scene must go on for five minutes or more, simply centered on Otilia’s expression as she barely hides her worry, annoyance, and anger—all while the family continues to gab about food, education, politics, and so on.
And even with the film’s political backdrop, I didn’t feel bombarded with forward commentary. Mungiu’s message doesn’t soapbox against Ceauşescu’s regime or take a pronounced stance for or against abortion. I highly doubt this picture is an allegory. Rather, when the film ends, we’re left with a considerable note about moving forward. Indeed, such a message is reinforced throughout by Otilia’s constant perseverance. While this could signify that Mungiu hopes Romania will forget about their period under Communist rule and build to something greater, I think, akin to the film’s artistic value, that a more minimalist meaning resides therein. Perhaps the film is simply an affecting victory of human willpower, one depicted by way of incredibly difficult, disturbing, and uncomfortable circumstances.
Films are about more than good stories. Sometimes it’s about how deep they penetrate. When we leave the theater afterward with that unnerving feeling of dread left over by this film, surely that’s the intended outcome. And as distressed and anxious as this wonderful picture made me, kudos to the filmmakers for so successfully involving the audience in their narrative via flawless verisimilitude. With more frequent cutting, music of any kind, boisterous performances, or shy camerawork, this film wouldn’t have been nearly as immersing. Instead, every element of the film’s mise-en-scène works to further isolate the audience, confronting us with the story’s grim reality.
At the Cannes Film Festival last year, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days received the Palme d’Or, earning top prize over the Oscar’s Best Picture winner No Country for Old Men. Meanwhile, Mungiu’s film wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. That the Academy Awards neglected to honor this film with at least a nomination proves how ignorant those who select contenders really are. A nomination might have helped boost interest in the picture, which is touring the United States in limited release. Alas, Mungiu’s brilliant devastation-of-a-movie will require some searching, but when you discover its nuanced performances and effortless moments of pure aestheticism, you’ll be grateful you took the time to hunt.