Deep into Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, we sit in on a leisurely dinner-table chat that appears to be unrelated to the film’s main event, an illegal abortion conducted in a seedy hotel. After shepherding her pregnant roommate through a procedure that proved all kinds of harrowing, a young Romanian college student named Otilia, superbly played by Anamaria Marinca, has left her friend to recover and dashed to a birthday party in honor of her boyfriend’s mother.
There the camera fastens on Otilia and stays there, in one of the movie’s many contemplative long takes. The young woman sits in near silence, squashed between celebrants and increasingly agitated as chatter flows around her about the costs and benefits of college and compulsory army service, the decline in church attendance, the pampered youth of today, the proper cooking of potatoes. Her well-heeled fellow dinner guests are friendly but too complacent and self-involved to notice the gulf that has opened between them and Otilia, who comes from a rural working-class family. Hold that thought: money, or its absence, has a hand in Otilia’s plight, but it’s not the immediate source of her desperate sense of entrapment.
The year is 1987, so we might read this digressive sequence as exposition sketching a country soldiering through the last gasp of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s über-Soviet iron rule. Perhaps the prattle is Mungiu’s sly dig at the smug bourgeoisie who sprang up after the fall of Ceaușescu in 1989. But allegory is not the director’s game—or if it is, he wants us to connect the dots while he stays close to the ground of an almost fanatically specific story, told within the compressed frame of a single day.
Unable to communicate her pain to her clueless boyfriend, Otilia rushes back to the hotel room, where earlier she was forced into an appalling act of self-sacrifice. The trauma opened her eyes to a double betrayal, on the one hand from an unscrupulous stranger and on the other from the ditzy friend, Găbiţa (Laura Vasiliu), for whom she has already risked so much, given that abortion was completely illegal under Ceaușescu’s rule for young, childless women (exceptions were made for those over forty-five and those who already had five children). Găbiţa’s paralysis has plunged both women into a cascade of horrifying bargains that cut way deeper than the abortion itself, the depiction of which is as graphic and disturbing as it needs to be given that the young woman has lied about how far along she is in her pregnancy.
“The movie sheds its secrets slowly; if you’re paying attention, its tiny but telling details and elisions tell a bigger story.”
A high-end realist drama quickening skillfully into horror, 4 Months hovers breathlessly on the border between tragedy and black comedy. In one of many sardonic touches, the abortionist, played with quiet cunning by Vlad Ivanov, is called Mr. Bebe. A sinister manipulator, he takes swift advantage of the women’s vulnerabilities, countering every plea for mercy with a hectoring question just vague enough to throw them off their guard. Time and time again, he backs one or the other into a verbal corner, then asks what she’s doing there. And like every racketeer worth his salt, he knows how to exact payment in kind. Bebe has already bullied and suckered both girls into an odious intimacy. Now, in a gesture of ownership almost more appalling than his administration of the crude procedure without anesthetic, he rests his hand casually on a prone Găbiţa’s knee while turning to receive an instrument from Otilia, an unwilling assistant who remains out of frame. And none of this is more unsettling than the violation that takes place offscreen. This omission has less to do with sparing our feelings—later we’ll be shown a partially formed fetus—than with ratcheting up our horror and revulsion.
The movie sheds its secrets slowly; if you’re paying attention, its tiny but telling details and elisions tell a bigger story. You might say, though Mungiu won’t say it for you, that the girls’ responses to their crisis represent two poles of personality shaped by totalitarian rule. Childlike and passive, Găbiţa is the girl most likely to get herself knocked up, ignore her swelling belly until it can no longer be covered up, then flap her hands and wait for someone to tell her what to do. Otilia, on the other hand, is the kind of friend anyone, anywhere, would be lucky to have, but especially under such inhospitable conditions. A resourceful and endlessly adaptive fixer, she calmly books one seedy hotel when she can’t afford the bribe for another. When Găbiţa chickens out, Otilia herself goes to meet the abortionist, about whom she knows nothing except that he comes vaguely recommended by another student. We share her anger and frustration at the cowardice and incompetence that have landed her in such hot water, and we cheer her efforts to outstrip a hostile world that thwarts her every move, in order to save herself and her friend from arrest and prison, to say nothing of the clutches of Bebe.
Still, fear eats the soul, even a soul as valiantly resilient as Otilia’s. Trapped in the frame by the steady gaze of cinematographer Oleg Mutu’s camera, both she and the pliable Găbiţa will end up as victims. 4 Months is Otilia’s movie, not Găbiţa’s: in the film’s bleakest moments, it’s the plucky one who pays the higher price. Small wonder that the camera so often shoots her from behind, aligning itself with her point of view, or that her dark eyes and pale intensity mirror the movie’s shadowy, hyperrealist palette. The close but fragile tie between these two girls and the testing of their friendship will later find echoes in a far sadder sisterhood. That’s the tale of two childhood friends in Mungiu’s 2012 Beyond the Hills, which indicts Romania’s other autocracy, the church.
4 Months implicitly evokes the insidious creep of a police state so intrusive you can’t even check into or out of a hotel without someone in uniform demanding to know why you’re there and what time you’re coming back. Moving through ill-lit streets from their dingy college dorm to the shabby room that has drained their meager budget, the two young women find themselves continually stymied by arbitrary rules and regulations whose only point seems to be to reduce them to dependent children, unable to think for themselves and browbeaten into submission by officials wielding petty power—and by the sheer effort it takes to get through the day.
As with all dictatorships, such oversight overload creates a breeding ground for bribery, corruption, and black markets in everything, from Western soap and cigarettes to that dangerously late abortion itself, carried out by an unlicensed amateur in the next worst thing to a back alley. Mistrust lodges itself deep within the psyche, forcing friends and lovers to treat one another with the same suspicion they would a stranger. As for that stranger, Bebe is a monster in his own right, one whose misogyny is flagged early on when he stops off at his home with Otilia and berates a woman—his elderly mother—for failing to follow instructions. Is he a villain or a malignant mutant of the totalitarian state, striving like the two young women he exploits to survive between the cracks?
“Mistrust lodges itself deep within the psyche, forcing friends and lovers to treat one another with the same suspicion they would a stranger.”
Mungiu, whose most recent film was the acclaimed Graduation (2016), belongs to the vibrant new wave of Romanian filmmakers that began wowing international critics and audiences in the early aughts, particularly at the Cannes Film Festival, where 4 Months won the Palme d’Or in 2007. Like Cristi Puiu (2005’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) and Corneliu Porumboiu (2006’s 12:08 East of Bucharest), he doesn’t do outcomes or happy endings. All of these filmmakers were born during and grew up under the Ceaușescu regime. All practice an artful realism that rebels against the portentous style, front-loaded with metaphor, of heavily censored Romanian cinema under Ceaușescu. All tell modest stories—of a dying man’s neglect at hospital after hospital, a run-down provincial TV station struggling to commemorate a revolution they’re not sure really happened, two young women trying to end an unwanted pregnancy—that shade into biting critiques of a social order at once bullying and broken.
Mungiu’s work, and that of his compatriots, more closely resembles the vérité documentaries of Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers than it does the social-issue films of other acclaimed European realists like Ken Loach or the Dardenne brothers. 4 Months is based on events that happened to an acquaintance of the director’s, and his method is sparer and more minimalist than that of many nonfiction films. There’s no score to speak of. The dialogue is willfully functional—when Otilia speaks, it’s all what to do next, how to jump the next bureaucratic hurdle. At any given moment, the camera either rests imperviously on the major players as they talk in a circle or move in and out of frame, or it’s chasing Otilia through the dark night as she tries to do damage control.
For all the international success of the New Romanian Cinema, such a rigorous, almost clinical aesthetic has risked the inattention of domestic audiences who, perhaps tired of the drab reality they endured for so long, gravitate toward more commercial homegrown fare and Hollywood spectacle. Of all the New Romanian Cinema films, 4 Months is one of only a very few to perform notably well at the country’s box offices. It’s hard to say whether that’s because of the film’s topicality, its satire, or the heartfelt melodrama that builds around this intrepid young woman and her friend. “You realize we can never speak of this again?” Otilia warns Găbiţa as they sit in the hotel restaurant nursing all manner of wounds.
As with all the best dramas, we leave wanting to know what comes next—whether their damaged bond will survive, and what Otilia’s life might look like today. Mungiu was born in 1968, a couple of years after the edict that almost completely banned abortion in Romania, costing the lives of many thousands of women who had to resort to back-alley terminations. Ceaușescu fell in 1989, along with the rest of the Soviet empire. Unlike Otilia and Găbiţa, Mungiu can speak freely today, but 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days grinds no political axes, nor does it slide neatly into the frame of contemporary debates about abortion. Mungiu doesn’t tip his hand, but the graphically evoked fetus, and its echo in the plate of organ meats offered to the girls in the movie’s mordantly funny, ineffably bleak conclusion, signal a timely reminder that the decision to abort is not a lark, or a decision anyone but a woman can make—and also that no one, especially not the state, owns the copyright to the term pro-life.