Catastrophe Looms

‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days'

The superb Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days uses the subject of abortion the way Brokeback Mountain dealt with homosexual love: as a springboard to examine human nature in extremis. In the American movie, thwarted love took its toll over the decades, and the long passage of time turned the screw of the psychological torture machine in which the lovers suffered. By contrast, 4 Months takes place within twelve hours—from midafternoon to night—and its protagonists, the college roommates Găbiţă and Otilia, undergo so much in so brief a time that we feel we are looking at life in a pressure cooker.

The pressure is provided by Nicolae Ceauşescu, although the dictator is never once mentioned by name in the film. In order to increase Romania’s population from 19 million to 25 million, and so provide good little worker ants for the state, Ceaus¸escu banned both contraception and abortion without doing anything significant for child care, prenatal education, infant nutrition, or preschool resources. “The fetus is the property of the entire society,” was his dictum. But his society, newly and incompetently industrialized, was so sterile and hardscrabble that many a woman must have had doubts about procreation. Backstreet abortions became common and many women died along with their fetuses.

But 4 Months isn’t agitprop. Its real subject is what happens to a character when lightning-fast, excruciating choices must be made while trying to do something the state forbids in a place (1987 Bucharest) where antibiotics, sedatives, cigarettes, hotel rooms, bus tickets, taxicab rides, pay phones, milk, and plastic sheets are all almost as difficult to come by as an abortion. Yet all those items are more or less necessary to the young women as they scramble about the city trying to obtain Găbiţă’s abortion. And because Găbiţă has put off the procedure out of natural misgivings, the girls truly must bustle: four months marked the dividing line in Romanian law between illegal termination and outright murder, between two years in prison and ten. So, on one particular February afternoon, certain things must be accomplished right away.

A hotel room must be booked for three days, one for the abortion, two (the inexperienced girls guess) for Ga˘bit¸a˘’s recovery. Phones must be at hand, since Otilia cannot always be at Ga˘bit¸a˘’s side (she has final exams), and Otilia wants to be assured that her roommate isn’t bleeding to death.

Money must be found for the abortionist. Money must be found for the hotel rooms.

Cigarettes must be secured as bribes for the hotel clerks.

Painkillers and sedatives must be at hand for Găbiţă.

A plastic sheet must be obtained, first to hold the blood, then as a wrapping for the fetus.

And what to do with the fetus? Găbiţă wants a burial but where is Otilia to find a nice, out-of-the-way plot when she feels that the whole city is hunting her down? And, oh yes, the mother of Otilia’s fiancé is having her forty-eighth birthday this very day and could Otilia please pick up forty-eight flowers for the party?

Everything goes wrong, starting with the hotel-room reservation, which disappears when the girls fail to confirm it. Gaffe leads to gaffe, with the central horror occurring when the abortionist sits down for a little talk with his customers before the procedure takes place. He turns out be a virtual rapist who expects sex as part of his payment, and wants it from both women. Throughout this terrible day Găbiţă certainly suffers, but it is Otilia who must do the actual negotiating, make the tough decisions, and undergo the most excruciating humiliations. That she comes through all this with some dignity and self-knowledge intact testifies to whatever truth there may be in Nietzsche’s dictum, “That which does not kill me makes me stronger.” But she’s no Nietzschean superwoman, just a person of enduring inner dignity.

What also emerges is the portrait of a culture, and it’s not a pretty one. The Romania presented here is a society in which everything must be obtained through bribes and self-abasement, in which anybody holding a position of responsibility feels free to scold and insult anybody with a need. The hotel desk clerks can barely bring themselves to look up from their paperwork to answer a question; tram conductors glower at students pooling their bus tickets; hotel security seems indistinguishable from the secret police; and priests in the confessionals may be writing down your latest sins for scrutiny by the real father-confessors, the ones with truncheons and electrodes. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu has stated that he “wanted the period to be always just the context and not the subject of the film,” but in this movie context is sometimes the subject.

Mungiu employs long takes. The camera is usually stationary but occasionally pivots to change the point of view or frame more of the action. This is not a technical stunt in the manner of Hitchcock’s Rope, but a canny method of intensifying the heat of the crucible in which the young women are caught. Within each meticulously composed set-up the characters interact, voices range from murmurs to shouts, tempers flare and flare out. People crammed around a small table at a birthday celebration seem to jockey for attention with their elbows. In the film’s last (and unforgettable) moments, we see in the foreground the two roommates sitting across from each other in a hotel dining room while a party goes on in the background, the shadows of the partygoers visible behind a cheap plastic partition. The girls’ sorrowing silence, broken only by a few words of muttered comfort, and the bellowed jokes and toasts heard from behind the partition, form a counterpoint that is as sardonic and compassionate as a passage in a Shostakovich string quartet.

Before the merciless gaze of Mungiu’s camera there cannot be any showy, fake naturalism in the acting. And there isn’t. Laura Vasiliu as Găbiţă, Alex Potocean as her fiancé, and—most especially—Anamaria Marinca as Otilia, so ordinary at first but growing steadily into a true heroine, and the amazing Vlad Ivanov as Bebe the abortionist, teetering deftly between common-man bluffness and out-and-out villainy, do indeed inhabit their characters to naturalistic perfection. But this isn’t the naturalism of eye-catching tics and shrugs, or clever bits of “business” with props. Within the pressure cooker that their director has built for them, they explode with an unfussy power that is mesmerizing. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a humane shocker.

Published in the 2008-03-28 issue: 

Richard Alleva has been reviewing movies for Commonweal since 1990.

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