4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Romania, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an abortion movie with a different perspective from the traditional melodrama or documentary. This production neither moralizes nor takes a side in the pro-life/pro-choice debate. In fact, this isn't about the issue at all (much as Knocked Up, in which abortion is quickly dismissed as an option, is not about it). In fact, by the time the story has begun, any agonizing about whether or not to have the procedure is long past (and has occurred off-screen). There is no doubt, nor is any introduced, that the abortion will take place. Instead, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is about the collateral damage incurred by those involved in obtaining a procedure that, in this time and place, is illegal and can carry a prison term of 5-10 years.

Events transpire in 1987 Romania, separated from us by two decades but seemingly a far distant time and place. It's worth noting how Eastern European directors are beginning to take a hard look at their own recent history, peeling back the intervening years to peer behind the Iron Curtain, something that is becoming a relic of the past. This is the second high-profile movie in a year to examine the Cold War era from a modern perspective on the Eastern side of the battle front. (The other title being The Lives of Others.) As in that other film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days considers the potential consequences of rule-breaking and, in a restrictive society like this one, there are many rules to break.

The story, while not taking place strictly in real time, covers a limited period of about 12 hours and delves deeply into the minutia of the characters' lives. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is pregnant and, with the help of her friend, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), has arranged to obtain an illegal abortion. This will take place at a hotel, where a man named Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) will arrive, perform a procedure with a probe, and disappear, never to be heard from again. The only guard against infection will be a few ampicillin pills he leaves behind. He offers no real advice should Gabita begin to hemorrhage. Plus, if all goes "well," there are rules to be followed regarding the disposal of the dead fetus: it has to be bundled into a package, taken to the tenth story of a high rise, and dumped into a garbage chute. The entire process is daunting, and Gabita is too scatterbrained to comprehend some of its complexities. As a result, Otilia ends up paying a deeper cost than she expects when Bebe raises his price.

Writer/director Cristian Mungiu has a unique style that contributes to the movie's almost claustrophobic sense of dread. The audience sees the film through the characters' eyes, often sensing danger where none may exist and missing signs of obvious peril. Mungiu employs a single camera that is sometimes hand-held (although generally more stable than in Cloverfield) and sometimes mounted on a tripod. He utilizes long, unbroken takes and rarely cuts without changing a scene or location. There's one 10-minute dinner sequence in which the entire thing is filmed from a static position. On another occasion, with characters moving around a room as they interact, the camera re-positions to follow them but the shot is unbroken. Mungiu also uses a Dogme-like approach, eschewing music completely and relying on natural lighting. This results in some dark sequences, such as those early in the film with Otilia traversing the corridors of the dorm where she shares a room with Gabita, and later when she wanders through benighted streets.

As good as Mungiu's style is in establishing characters, providing details of their circumstances, and generating unforced suspense, it has its drawbacks. Some of the scenes drag, losing momentum and transforming nervous tension into frustration. The aforementioned dinner sequence is the best example of this. For ten minutes, Otilia sits there, where she doesn't want to be, while meaningless conversation floats around her. The camera focuses on her face and we see her almost animalistic need to flee. Five minutes of this would have conveyed everything we need to know. The director's decision to let this run for so long risks losing his audience and breaking the delicate spell he has woven so well to that point. There are other similar instances throughout the film, but none so obvious.

Some will see this as a cautionary tale of what happens when abortion is criminalized, but the film wrestles with a larger issue. This is not The Cider House Rules. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is less about the specific crime than it is about ways in which people (and women in particular) can be victimized in a totalitarian system. The perspective echoes in tone (if not in specifics) movies like Maria Full of Grace and Lilya 4-Ever. Both of those pictures are grim and brutal in the way they explore the exploitation of women; there's more than a little of that ingredient in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

For his two leads, Mungiu has chosen relatively fresh faces. Neither Anamarian Marinca nor Laura Vasiliu has a lengthy resume and it's doubtful that either will be familiar to North American filmgoers. As is so often the case with imported performances, these are entirely credible. The actresses sell the circumstances. For viewers who complain about movies not doing a good job of representing real life, here's a counter-example and a primary reason for the verisimilitude is the unaffected acting. The supporting role of the abortionist, Bebe, is played by veteran Vlad Ivanov with a chilling emotionlessness. Alexandru Potocean has an abbreviated role as Adi, Otilia's boyfriend.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palm D'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and was thereafter nominated by the Golden Globes in the Best Foreign Film category. Inexplicably, it was overlooked by the Academy, which is yet another reason to call into question the methods used to determine the final roster of Foreign Langauge Film nominees. Despite the oversight, IFC intends to go forward with a reasonably widespread distribution so the movie will not rot in obscurity. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an abortion movie where the pro-choice/pro-life struggle fades into the background to give way to a more visceral and less philosophical battle. Despite being slow and deliberate, it is often compelling and occasionally riveting. As The Lives of Others was in 2007, this is the first memorable movie of 2008.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Romania, 2007)

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Cast: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, Alexandru Potocean
Screenplay: Cristian Mungiu
Cinematography: Oleg Mutu
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2008-01-25
MPAA Rating: "NR" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: English subtitled Romanian
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1