4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

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IFC Films
Cristian Mungiu/Romania 2007

Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days begins in a sparse student dormitory shared by two female friends who are deliberating what to do with their pet goldfish, while Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is “absent” for a few days. We soon gather that the survival of the goldfish is the very least of the girls’ concerns. By the film’s close, the goldfish in a bowl can be recognized as a metaphor for Mungiu’s uncompromising film about illegal abortion in Romania under Nicolae Ceau?escu’s dictatorship: Mungiu relentlessly hones in on the enclosed world of Gabita and her best friend, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) for the nightmarish 48 hours in which they seek to have Gabita’s unwanted pregnancy aborted.

To cut an intricately drawn story short, while remaining silent on a couple of the film’s most horrific twists, the synopsis of 4 Months is simple: Set in Romania in 1987 in the last years of Ceau?escu’s reign, pregnant 20something Gabita seeks the help of Otilia to organize an abortion (which is illegal in Romania since 1966) at the hands of a certain chillingly-named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). In a hotel room, Mr. Bebe blackmails both girls before agreeing to carry out a termination, which could essentially kill Gabita. When Gabita’s body finally releases the dead fetus (an image not easily erased from memory), Otilia must dispose of it.

From the description alone, 4 Months is evidently not a pretty tale. It is the sort of film one goes to with a sense of foreboding, but it is worth every 113 minutes of that pit-in-stomach feeling. Shot mainly with a shoulder-held camera, the film is entirely naturalistic in style, dialogue and timeframe. The film’s action takes place in the space of the last two days of its title, yet Mungiu’s sophisticated writing and direction assure that it is far from straightforward docu-fiction. The film’s power derives as much from it being a gripping thriller, as its emotive subject matter. Although a different period piece altogether, Mike Leigh’s critically acclaimed Vera Drake achieved a similarly artistic dramatization of abortion.

From the outset, it is clear that these young women are just another two in a long line of victims of a draconian regime. As such, the spectator’s fear quickly sets in that there is no limit to what can go wrong, because they are helpless. And go wrong it does. The film offers up a stream of almost-Hitchcockian moments of tension. If the situation were not precarious enough, on first examining Gabita’s stomach, Mr. Bebe prises the fact from her that she is, in reality, nearly five months pregnant as opposed to the two months she lied about, when initially contacting the doctor. Immediately, the stakes are raised in the perilousness of the operation. The patronizing Mr. Bebe signals danger from the get-go, odiously posing as the girls’ savior. Otilia steals a flick knife from Mr. Bebe’s medical case whilst he is in the bathroom. Will she get caught? Will the knife be used as a weapon? Such are the questions which race through the viewer’s mind. Similarly, each time Otilia is forced to leave Gabita alone, locked in the hotel room, after the operation, we never know in what state she will find her on her return. Gabita fails to answer the phone when Otilia rings her from her boyfriend’s house. Has the abortion killed her? Has Mr. Bebe murdered her? This is nerve-jangling, meticulously-crafted cinema, manipulating and ensnaring the viewer throughout: You want to leave the theater. You know you have to stay. What next in this descent into hell?

Mungiu’s work is fundamentally a highly-politicized critique of the Romania in which he grew up as a young man during the 1980s. The trauma experienced by Otilia and Gabita represents a wider truth: statistics vary but it is believed some half a million women died from illegal abortions during Ceau?escu’s reign. As his iron-clad regime tumbled, the images of hundreds of thousands of children abandoned in orphanages similarly attested to the failure of his population control policy. Yet Mungiu does not bludgeon home his message. As with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s recent The Lives of Others (another revelatory film about Eastern Bloc practices), the director shows rather than tells his nation’s tragedy. We learn that even at university, Romanian students are surveyed by the police state, that the most ordinary consumer products must be secretly bartered on the black market, that there is a curfew even in the smaller towns from 10 p.m. at night and certainly, that everything has a price (Mr. Bebe uses those exact words). When Otilia sits in Mr. Bebe’s red car prior to driving to the hotel, to the right of the frame, a drab queue waits outside a shop to purchase goods. Ironically, given a film about a fertile woman, practically every scene of the film depicts a barren, sterile era in Romania’s history.

The achievement of 4 Months is that it is also a monumental film about friendship and sacrifice. Mungiu chooses to tell the story, rather unusually, not through the eyes of the girl who is expecting, but through Otilia, her best friend who has no obligation to be involved. The two young women could not be more different in character. Mungiu pitches a naive scared brunette, Gabita, against a dynamic, pragmatic blonde, Otilia whose every choice, every action, determines that the horrific deed is, at least, accomplished to its fulfillment. Otilia is Gabita’s knight in shining armor because whoever got her pregnant is absent from first to last. The performances are perfect throughout, but Otilia stands out as the courageous heroine who drives the drama on – torn between her responsibility to Gabita and love for her boyfriend. She even manages to attend her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday dinner as promised, before returning to the hotel room to dispose of the five-month-old fetus – a final journey on which we and the camera follow Otilia at close range as she climbs breathlessly to the top of a high-rise building in the middle of the night.

The film ends on a quiet note. Otilia joins Gabita at a table in the hotel restaurant and the two diners gaze silently at their separate menus. In the background, a rowdy wedding reception hits full throttle. Breaking the silence between them, Otilia’s final words to Gabita are that they should never again speak of what has happened to them. This seems to have been the stance taken by generations of Romanian woman who actually lived this predicament. Goldfish purportedly have short memories, Mungiu evidently does not. In the final shot, Gabita turns to stare at the camera, as if to say, “Look at me … and bear witness.”

© 2007 Maxine Harfield. All rights reserved.

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