4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 DaysWritten and directed by Cristian MungiuStarring Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov and Alexandru PotoceanNot Rated*9.5*
Goes well with: You Can Count on Me, Vera Drake, Naked
In 1966, the communist dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceausescu, issued Decree 770, which made all abortions illegal. The effect on the populace was immediate—within a year, the birth rate doubled, eventually leading to packed orphanages across the country. Inside a decade, however, the birth rate returned to its pre-decree levels, but the maternal mortality rate skyrocketed, as Romanian women terminated their pregnancies away from the law's prying eyes, and also away from the safety of doctors and hospitals.
Twenty-two years after the law went into effect, the Romanians revolted, but there is a generation of Romanians, the Cohort of 1967, with a huge percentage of unplanned children, including writer-director Cristian Mungiu, whose stunning and excruciating new film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is part of a renaissance of Romanian filmmaking.
Countrywide orders such as Decree 770 are huge in scope but play out at the personal level. The individual side is what we see in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, as Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), a college student, seeks an abortion with the assistance of her roommate and best friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca). The film takes place in the '80s, in the waning years of the dictatorship but before Ceausescu and his wife were pushed up against a wall and executed.
Gabita is kind of a Soviet bloc-head, almost incapable of making a commonsensical decision, leaving the bulk of the responsibility—borrowing the money, booking the hotel room, meeting the abortionist—to Otilia. The two engage the services of the ironically named Mr. Bebe, who is as manipulative and icky as one might expect a back-alley abortionist to be. After the doctor's services have been engaged, Otilia departs to visit her boyfriend's family, a promised appearance she can't break, leaving Gabita by herself. The visit, however, is unbearable, and it's clear how hard it is for Otilia to not be with her friend.
This is a harsh, bleak film. It's excruciating to watch, but it's also staggeringly well done. Mungiu lets the camera run for minutes at a time, so his actors are truly acting. The emotion is palpable, and the long, extended takes make each situation feel all the more real, compellingly voyeuristic and awkward. The film breaks down the larger societal issues into situations viewers can related to. The recent Romanian film movement is based in harsh realism derived from the Ceausescu era, but none of the recent critical successes—12:08 East of Bucharest and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu—have the brutal depth and the very human affirmations of 4 Months.
Anamaria Marinca's performance is courageous, and the same can certainly be said for the abortionist himself, Vlad Ivanov. But what's also fascinating about 4 Months is that it doesn't take sides. Mingiu approaches abortion and the issue's dehumanization with the same stark, unsentimental lens that he points at the unhelpful hotel clerks or the lifeless Soviet-era apartments. There's no judgment of Gabita for having an abortion, just a recording of what happens when she does. It is neither pro-life nor pro-choice, which is perhaps understandable when you realize that Decree 770 wasn't based upon any moral imperative or religious dogma. No, it's far more depressing than that—Ceausescu simply wanted to increase his nation's exploitable labor force in a very short time.
So, yes, 4 Months is intense, and, yes, the title means exactly what you probably think it does. Had I seen this film in '07, the year it was technically released, it would have made my end-of-the-year must-see list. It's the anti-Juno, just as vital and important as No Country for Old Men, perhaps even more so. Really, it's that good. And the fact that it wasn't nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar is an outrage, and the fact that it isn't eligible for Best Picture is, like the film itself, a systemic tragedy.