Even at its darkest, film is still an engaging slice-of-life story
Gabita and Otilia are roommates at a Romanian university in 1987. Gabita is pregnant and, with much help from the diligent Otilia, is preparing for an illegal abortion. The abortionist, known only as “Mr. Bebe,” will conduct the “procedure” in a Bucharest hotel room that the two young women have booked for a three-day weekend.
Plainly, that’s a grim and foreboding premise for a film drama, and part of what makes 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days so extraordinary is that it approaches its difficult subject in a manner that is both unflinching and surprisingly tender and illuminating.
And it’s crucial that 4 Months is about much more besides Gabita’s abortion. Cristian Mungiu’s film is also a wide-ranging slice-of-life tale in which two young women struggle to navigate—and survive in—a society riddled with cruel hypocrisy and systemic corruption. It’s not a position-paper on the abortion issue, but rather an astonishing inside view of life in Ceausescu-era Romania, with its fascistic/Soviet-bloc authoritarianism and the double-bind of an unofficial laissez-faire capitalism in the form of a rampant black-market economy.
That remarkable inside view comes to us primarily through Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), who is much more central to the overall action than Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), and through Mungiu’s brilliantly off-handed approach to slice-of-life storytelling. Mungiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) guide us through a day-or-so in the life of Otilia, in a style that emulates documentary at its most alert and minimizes melodrama. Otilia’s by no means uncomplicated relationships—with Gabita, with her blandly ambitious boyfriend Adi, with the educated elite and the older generation in Romania—emerge gradually and unforgettably through the film’s manner of casual, unhurried observation.
Most scenes in the film are shot in a single long take, some with the camera moving (Otilia making her way from one transaction/conversation/negotiation to the next) and some with it stationary (the transaction/conversations themselves). Perhaps the film’s best and most emblematic moment comes in a tour-de-force long take, a stationary shot of a dinner-table conversation at Adi’s parents’ house, with Otilia—silent but not at all inexpressive—sandwiched among gabby, oblivious, chummily condescending adults.
With a single brief and very disturbing exception, the few gory details are handled with tact and restraint that are very much in keeping with the surface effect of drab realism. And yet this unique film’s most substantial rewards come to us by way of that apparent drabness. The air of casual indifference in the way shots are composed gradually begins to function as something much more powerful and significant—a grave, kindly sort of patience, a somber and relentlessly unsentimental compassion, a keenly moral vision that refuses all easy judgments.