I’ve heard 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days described as “that Romanian movie about abortion,” which manages to be both unfairly condescending and reasonably accurate. The implication that writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s film is just a pedantic “issue movie” is dead wrong—it’s far too understated and artful for that—but neither can one easily step back from the brutal events on screen and imagine them to be merely allegorical or metaphoric. 4 Months isn’t vaguely about the suffering of millions under Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu; it’s specifically about the suffering of two individual women, and the unrelentingly naturalistic filmmaking demands that we recognize and experience that. 4 Months is “about abortion” because anything less would be a betrayal of the characters.
The story is deceptively simple. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), a tech student, helps arrange an abortion for her roommate, the sweet but passive Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). Abortion is illegal—women who obtain them and those who administer them are both subject to years in prison—so the termination of Gabita’s pregnancy puts both young women in danger and strains their relationship.
And that’s it—less than twenty-four hours in Otilia’s life—and yet we learn a great deal about her from how she relates to Gabita, her boyfriend and his family, the shady abortionist, and various unhelpful hotel clerks. Marinca’s extraordinary, subtle performance is key to the success of the film. Mungiu often holds his camera stationary for long, unbroken shots, simply focusing on Otilia’s face as she watches and listens, so much of the drama is in her tired but determined features.
We watch Otilia as she discovers Gabita has failed to confirm a vital hotel reservation. We watch her as she realizes that the abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), is changing the terms of payment. In one of the most agonizing sequences in the film, we watch her sit through her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday dinner, listening to the patronizing chatter of people insulated from the kind of hardship Gabita is enduring at that very moment. Mungiu’s patience, his willingness to frame a shot and then be still, counterintuitively results in a harrowingly taut drama, as tense and suspenseful as any thriller.
And he doesn’t create that suspense by painting in black and white. Gabita’s failure to face her situation and act decisively puts her and Otilia at terrible risk. Mr. Bebe might be a monster, but he’s an oddly professional monster, and his paranoia is not unreasonable. The uncooperative hotel clerks are victims, too, trapped in a nightmarish bureaucracy that refuses even to guarantee their paycheck. If 4 Months is to be read as a statement about totalitarianism in general, it is here, in the perversions of day-to-day relationships, that that reading is strongest. The suspicions and scarcity of life under Ceausescu taint everything from the relationship between a hotel clerk and guest to Otilia’s relationship with her well-meaning but faint-hearted boyfriend. Everything is shaken, everything is cheapened, everything is muddied.