'4 Months': A Time and Place Brought Unerringly to Life

A portion of pivotal dinner scene. Video by IFC Films
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 1, 2008

Prepare yourself for "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."

The Romanian drama, which won the Palme d'Or last year at Cannes, has been a sensation on the international festival circuit, finally causing a scandal last month when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate it for Best Foreign Language Film.

So viewers will no doubt be tempted to see what all the fuss has been about. But they should mark it well: "4 Months," which was written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, is unlike anything they've seen in a theater before. Tough, unsparing, unexpectedly poetic, this shattering drama about a young woman obtaining an illegal abortion during the last days of the Ceausescu regime is sure to upend assumptions about what constitutes cinema and art itself.

A harrowingly naturalistic portrait of how tyranny seeps into and distorts the lives of the citizens it touches, "4 Months" can't be described as fun to watch, and it stands in stark contrast to the escapism that dominates even the most independent fare in American multiplexes. (It makes "The Lives of Others," another magnificent excavation of a country's communist past, look as silky and unthreatening as a soap opera.) But for filmgoers who care passionately about the future of cinema, its possibilities both as a medium for storytelling and profoundly emotional connection, "4 Months" gives reason to cheer.

It's 1987, and college student Gabi (Laura Vasiliu) has enlisted her dorm roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to help her get an abortion. "4 Months" starts in the middle of things, as the two girls talk about logistics, money and schedules; Mungiu's cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, follows Otilia as she shuffles down the dorm hallway to see about buying some black-market cigarettes and getting Gabi's hair dryer back from a friend.

We follow Otilia as she meets her boyfriend, gets a little money from him, goes to the hotel, finds that the reservation has been lost, travels to another hotel, and finally meets the abortionist, a soft-spoken, tough, ironically named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). With methodical pacing and fierce attention to detail, Mungiu and his team don't just convey in a matter of minutes what it was like to live in communist Romania, they plunge viewers headlong into the reality.

"We wanted to make a film in which we didn't comment in any way," Mungiu explained when reached on the phone in Los Angeles, where he was making the pre-Oscar rounds (fruitlessly, it turned out). "We wanted to abstain from being manipulative, which is very easy for filmmakers, and not make any formal decision that would belong to us as authors. That's why we decided not to use music. As a filmmaker, you make a lot of decisions out of habit, and once you stop and rethink, you have much more of a sense of inventing a new language, or using it in a fresher way." (Throughout much of "4 Months," the camera is stationary, allowing the actors to walk in and out of scenes and talk off-screen. "We wanted to indicate there's a bigger story than what we see on screen," explains Mungiu.)

Things don't go well, and it's here that a conscientious critic hesitates to give more plot information for fear of revealing spoilers. Still, viewers deserve to know what they're getting into. Never abandoning his dispassionate, observant filming style, Mungiu doesn't turn his camera away in "4 Months," which graphically depicts an abortion and its aftermath (the title refers to the pregnancy's term), and -- less graphically but no less troubling -- the two women being raped by Bebe.

If this sounds repellent to the point of being unwatchable, it isn't, largely because Mungiu and the actors create such complex, fully realized characters, all trying to survive an oppressive system that watches and threatens them at every turn. Each represents some internalized response to repression: Gabi, passive and infantalized; Bebe, alternately practical and monstrous; and finally Otilia, who emerges as the most sympathetic character by far as she faces the unspeakable with steely focus.

If Gabi's abortion is the putative subject of "4 Months," it's by no means an abortion movie; the film's most memorable scene occurs away from the hotel room, when Otilia attends her boyfriend's mother's birthday party and must endure the smug condescension of his parent's bourgeois friends. That scene, an extraordinary tableau of the subtle class politics of a nominally classless society, is a small masterpiece, as is Otilia's confrontation with her boyfriend a few moments later.

Although every member of the ensemble cast delivers a tone-perfect performance, the movie belongs to Marinca, who conveys a welter of emotions -- sweetness, anger, shame -- with flawless conviction, often in wordless glance or gesture. American audiences who have been treated to such consoling fictions as "Knocked Up" and "Juno" in recent months here finally have an example of filmmaking that dares to be honest about the high stakes of women's reproductive lives.

Mungiu based "4 Months" on a story he heard from a friend who went through a similar situation, and he says that screenings in Romania have proved cathartic, "especially for women over 40," many of whom have their own stories to tell.

When Otilia endures her final, unspeakable indignity, disposing of the tiny fetus in a garbage chute, the filming style has gone from smooth and calm to the jarring, frenetic cadences of a hand-held camera. Mungiu says he wanted to portray how disconnected abortion had become from morality under the Ceausescu regime, which criminalized the practice not on philosophical grounds but simply in a bid to populate the country.

"Lack of moral perspective was one of the worst things the communist education did to us," he explains. "And you can see the long-term consequences today. Abortion is still the most widespread method of contraception, almost 18 years after the fall of communism. Making this film was a way of speaking about how not having this freedom in that period, and abusing this freedom for lack of knowledge as soon as we have it, could pretty much lead you in the same direction."

"4 Months" ends much as it begins, in the middle of a scene with Gabi and Otilia, as they confront the appalling truths of what has just transpired, and tacitly agree to bury it forever. It's a sobering, deeply moving moment and, as Marinca turns her steady gaze to the camera, one gets the sense of witnessing an entire country coming to terms with its own difficult past. "4 Months" -- to paraphrase Mr. Bebe -- is not a game: Once you start, there is no turning back.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (113 minutes, in Romanian with subtitles, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. It contains profanity, brief partial nudity, adult situations and a graphic depiction of an abortion.

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