4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS & 2 DAYS
Cristian Mungiu’s harrowing tale of two young women negotiating a black-market abortion, 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, is one of those movies whose details stick with you. Its opening frame isolates a table in a college dorm room; the camera lingers there, unmoving, as smoke curls upward from a cigarette left burning in an ashtray and a goldfish swims in a small tank whose back has been papered with a black-and-white street scene. Before a hand reaches into the frame to reclaim the cigarette and end the shot, a title identifies the setting as “Romania, 1987,” and though you haven’t even met the characters, you get a sense that, like the fish, they’ve grown accustomed to the narrow parameters of their lives.
The shot lasts longer than you expect, and that sort of patience is just one way the director expresses his trust in the audience. There’s no music telling you what to feel; there’s almost no camera movement telling you where to look. Instead of cutting from establishing shot to medium shot to close-up, Mungiu and talented cinematographer Oleg Mutu carefully compose their wide-screen tableaux and then stick with them for minutes at a time, letting characters walk in and out of view and letting your eye wander around the screen and pick out salient details. Human nature being what it is, once you settle into the movie’s steady gaze, you’re inclined to trust a storyteller who trusts you.
In a truly great movie the form becomes indistinguishable from the story, and that’s certainly the case here. 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days is about a woman trying to preserve her capacity to trust while living in a society corrupted by suspicion. Otilia, played with silent intensity by Anamaria Marinca, has agreed to help her flaky roommate, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), procure an abortion, which is illegal under the communist regime. They’ve grown up with the black market—an early scene shows Otilia casually purchasing cigarettes from a supplier in the dorm—but when they allow the icy Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) into their hotel room, neither woman seems to realize how far they’ve ventured outside the law’s protection. As their day grows increasingly horrible, Otilia’s closest relationships are compromised, either because the other person violates her trust or because she violates theirs. (Please note: spoilers follow.)
Nearly every scene involves some sort of haggling—even Otilia’s brief encounter with her boyfriend centers on his insistence that she come to dinner at his parents’ house that evening. When Otilia arrives at the hotel, the officious clerk at the front desk has no record of Gabita’s reservation and challenges Otilia’s claim that her friend called ahead. Forced to try another hotel, Otilia is interrogated by the receptionist, who demands her ID and bluntly asks why she and her friend need a hotel room when they live in a nearby dorm. In each scene Mungiu uses the front desk to bisect the frame, placing Otilia in opposition to her inquisitor, and each of them lords it over her with rudeness and long silences. Though the movie isn’t overtly political, it captures the chilly emotional terrain of life in a country where the government’s rigid control has filtered down to everyday transactions.
This climate of suspicion intensifies with the arrival of Mr. Bebe, whose services have been recommended to the women by one of their friends. “Trust is vital,” he insists at one point. But can he trust them? He expected to confer with Gabita before they arrived at the hotel, but she sent Otilia as her proxy. He specified two hotels where they could operate, but Otilia has brought him to a third, where the nosy receptionist has confiscated his ID. Upon examining Gabita he discovers she isn’t two months pregnant, as she’s claimed, but three or even four, which would elevate their crime to murder under the law. The last straw comes when the women, who’ve spent more than they planned on the hotel room, try to negotiate a lower price for the procedure. When Mr. Bebe finally explodes, cowing them into submission, the crucial trust of the doctor-patient relationship is savagely violated.
Mungiu’s restraint becomes an even greater asset as the story’s emotions grow more brutal. One of the most impressive scenes comes after the procedure, when Otilia has reluctantly left Gabita alone to await her induced miscarriage and trucked to her boyfriend’s house for her dinner commitment. The frame accommodates not only the young couple and the boy’s parents but also, at least partially, their four adult dinner guests. Despite all the talking and gesticulating, you can’t tear your eyes away from Otilia as she sits in silence, isolated by her secret. When the telephone rings unanswered in the next room—possibly Gabita calling for help—the tension is excruciating. The sense of isolation becomes even more acute after dinner, when Otilia tells her boyfriend about the abortion and they argue bitterly. He can’t understand her level of anger because she doesn’t reveal the worst part of the story: to pay for the procedure, both she and Gabita agreed to have sex with Mr. Bebe.
Given the sexual extortion at the center of the movie, one might easily view it as a tale of feminist outrage. Otilia’s hostility toward her boyfriend certainly feels legitimate: when he reprimands her, she acidly reminds him about the time he thoughtlessly came inside her. But Mungiu subverts this easy reading in two important ways. First, Otilia has betrayed her boyfriend’s trust rather than vice versa, and compounds the offense with her silence; and second, her own trust has been betrayed by Gabita. After their ordeal, Otilia questions Gabita about the sequence of events that led to it and discovers that her friend—for whom she’s risked and sacrificed so much—has lied to her. In the masterful final shot the two women sit in the hotel restaurant, dancing couples at a wedding reception visible through the windows behind them. When Gabita begins to revisit the day’s events, Otilia cuts her off: “You know what we’re going to do? We’re never going to talk about this.”
Of course one might argue that the ultimate betrayal of trust is the abortion itself, the results of which are graphically portrayed when Otilia returns to the hotel room from the little dinner party. As Otilia goes into the bathroom, Mungiu holds on her face, registering her awestruck expression, before panning down to show the pink fetus—aged four months, three weeks, and two days—wrapped in a tatty white hotel towel, covered in congealed amniotic fluid, its eyes swollen shut. In a more manipulative movie this prolonged shot might seem like the ultimate exploitation, but by this time you’re accustomed to looking at events head-on and making your own value judgments. This is a movie about not what could be or should be, but simply what is.
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