2007 // Romania - Belgium // Christian Mungui // March 6, 2008 // Theatrical Print
A - It is 1987, and in a dingy dormitory room, a pair of Romanian women prepare for a trip of some kind. Who will feed the goldfish while we are gone? Where is the hair dryer? Should I bring my class notes so I can study? The genius of Christian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is evident in these first few opening minutes. The scenes reveal something about the character of each of these women, Gabita and Otilia, but the portrait is not yet complete. Much more will come to light, about their strengths and flaws, about the casual menace of life in Communist Romania, and about what exactly they are planning. This is a remarkable film about how people achieve illicit aims in a world that is alternately indiscriminate and cruel. This is a film about abortion, and it is the first great movie of 2008.
Gabita is pregnant and does not want to be. She and her loyal roommate Otilia have developed a desperate plan to secure an abortion. Even in twenty-first century America, this endeavor would be littered with financial, logistical, and social stumbling blocks. In late Ceauşescu Romania, it is a kind of waking nightmare. The elements of their plan must come together in exactly right manner or the women will face prison, disease, or worse. Their scheme seems solid enough, and initially Otilia in particular seems relatively composed, as if she refuses to permit this little detour to interrupt her student routine. Then things begin to go wrong. The hotel room they booked for the procedure falls through. The doctor is agitated when they fail to follow his instructions precisely. Fears and lies come home to roost.
4 Months is drama distilled to kerosene potency. It is a film that winds the viewer so tight that it could almost be described as a thriller, but that would be both understatement and mis-characterization. Vicarious amusement has nothing to do with 4 Months' ambitions or achievements. I shared the sickening fear that hounded Otilia and Gabita's every move. I walked away harrowed and awestruck at the clawing dread of youth, womanhood, and captivity.
This is a disturbingly realistic film, but it is not naturalistic. Mungiu assembles every scene with a meticulous, burning understanding of what he wishes to achieve. His shots are long and ambitious, but rarely ostentatious. Both the actors and cinematographer Oleg Mutu's camera move through the film with an astonishing exactitude and clarity of purpose. This is not to say that 4 Months is a technically perfect film. When Mungiu occasionally switches to bouncy handheld shooting, he often assumes that lighting a scene as dimly as possible somehow makes it tenser. Of course, when you only have about $800,000 or so to spend on your film, corners have to be cut somewhere.
4 Months is constructed in a way that is at once utterly convincing and gloriously cinematic. The viewer is dropped into Otilia and Gabita's terrifying situation with no preamble. Understanding seeps in, and revelations emerge from gestures, whispers, and screams. Exposition occurs naturally, when the characters themselves need facts. Mungiu's storytelling is lean where it is required, but elsewhere he embellishes his film with techniques and details that tweak our expectations. Conversations occur out of focus in the background, or entirely off-screen. In one scene, Otilia discovers a pocketknife and steals it, but the weapon never appears again. The moment is crucial not for the plot, but for what it reveals about her character and Communist Romania.
There is a fascinating sequence in 4 Months that occurs as an interlude between the second and third acts, a sequence crucial to the film's thematic heart. Otilia must attend a birthday dinner for her boyfriend's mother, and to do so she leaves Gabita in a perilous situation. Mungiu constructs this sequence around an extended, unbroken shot of people conversing at a dinner table. Mungiu remains focused on Otilia for the entire shot, and my eyes refused to wander from the actress, Anamaria Marinca. The discussion at the table touches on parenting, education, and caustic Romanian class biases, but the reason for this shot--the idea of it--ies entirely within Marinca's eyes. This is captivating filmmaking.
Otilia, not Gabita, serves as the film's narrative center, and Marinca invests her with a spooky, resolute aura that engages for every moment that she is on screen. The other performances in 4 Months are merely satisfactory by comparison, but they serve the story so neatly it seems unsound to criticize them too harshly. Mungiu employs his characters as surgical tools, and he hones the performances through use.
Throughout its grim journey, 4 Months rests on an oblique but unashamed pro-choice foundation. To say that this is a "message film," however, undervalues the slow, steeping way it conveys its anger and melancholy. Gabita is no saintly victim. She does not deserve the shame that cripples her, but her failure to appreciate the consequences of her stupidity, cowardice, and panic borders on infuriating. It is Otilia who evolves over the course of the film, as she starts to reevaluate her identity as a friend, student, child, lover, and woman. To be sure, 4 Months will convince no religious conservatives of abortion's moral correctness. What it accomplishes is something far more viable and breathtaking: a moving work of art about the most intimate and frightening realms of human experience.