If someone started out by telling you that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a bleak drama about abortion, shot in Romania and set in the Communist era of the ’80s, you’d probably avoid it like the plague. So, instead, I’ll start out by telling you 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days captured the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, won Best Film and Best Director at the European Film Awards, was nominated for a Golden Globe and landed on numerous critics’ top 10 lists for last year. ... Now for the rough part.
The film opens up in the mid-’80s, when Communism in Romania was still in effect thanks to the slackening death grip of notorious despot Nicolae Ceauşescu. In a university dormitory only slightly more appealing than an abandoned penitentiary, two young roommates are preparing for a trip. Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) waxes her legs. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) barters with her fellow students for necessities like soap and cigarettes. Under the rotting hand of Communism, bureaucratic corruption and a black market economy are spreading like mold. Even the simple act of renting a hotel room becomes a Sisyphean task filled with bribery and begging.
So where are naive Gabriela and levelheaded Otilia planning to spend the next two days? Why are they leaving school during the height of their exams? Why have they socked away a large chunk of money? All becomes apparent when the two hook up with “Mr. Bebe” (Vlad Ivanov), a soft-spoken, straightforward man who is obviously in the business of providing illegal abortions.
Gabriela is pregnant and desperate to hide the fact. She won’t even admit how far along she is (though the title provides that information for us). Along with her roommate and her would-be abortionist, Gabriela checks into a hotel in Bucharest. There, Mr. Bebe lays out the events that are to transpire. He’s chillingly direct and isn’t all that happy with the things Gabriela has already screwed up. (She’s checked into the wrong hotel, forgotten certain items and hasn’t been all that honest about the terms of her pregnancy.)
Despite his quiet manner and direct speech, Bebe turns out to be as venal as his fellow countrymen. Soon, he’s extracting an unpleasant price from the girls for his “invaluable” assistance, turning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days into a disquieting real-world horror film.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a powerful effort, and writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s stark, static camerawork and lack of a soundtrack only heighten the clinical reality of it all. Mungiu doesn’t exploit this situation, but he doesn’t blink from it either. Using an efficient, one-shot-per-scene editing style, Mungiu’s camera often frames critical action just off screen, sparing us the darkest of details but increasing their dramatic power in our fevered imaginations.
Like the coal-black comedies The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 East of Bucharest, Mungia’s film revels in the low-down, gritty details of living in a dysfunctional, highly repressive, post-Stalinist society. The brunt of the dysfunction here is brought to bear on Otilia, whose resourcefulness is tested to the extreme--not only by her needy friend, but by her selfish boyfriend and others. As if dealing with a monstrous abortionist wasn’t enough, Otilia is called away to attend a birthday party for her spoiled boyfriend’s mother. Though it seems impossible, Mungiu stages this sequence as an even more unbearable, claustrophobic situation than what’s unfolding in a hotel room across town.
It’s hard to judge, really, what point 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is trying to make. That isn’t because the film is wishy-washy in premise or execution; it’s just that the film proceeds in such a blunt, neo-realist manner it’s hard to extract a lot of the filmmaker’s own attitudes. Certainly, this is no idealized, sanitized version of underground abortions. But it’s as much about the paranoid, heartless, corrosive effect Communism had on Eastern Europe as it is about intimate medical procedures. Ultimately, viewers will be prevailed upon to stamp their own moral on the story. It might serve as a cautionary tale, frightening you right into the pro-life camp. Or it might harden your firm commitment to safe, legal forms of birth control. Or maybe it will simply stop you from ever wanting to have sex in a Communist country. Hard to say.