Pitch perfect and brilliantly acted, “4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days” is a stunning achievement, helmed with a purity and honesty that captures not just the illegal abortion story at its core but the constant, unremarked negotiations necessary for survival in the final days of the Soviet bloc. Showcasing all the elements of new Romanian cinema — long takes, controlled camera and an astonishing ear for natural dialogue — Cristian Mungiu’s masterly film plays only one false note in an otherwise beautifully textured story. Further proof of Romania’s new prominence in the film world, pic will attract discerning auds in Stateside and Euro arthouses.
Certain to be spoken of with the same regard as “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” with which it shares d.p. Oleg Mutu, pic is envisioned, like that surprise hit, as the first in a series, ironically titled “Tales From the Golden Age.” Mungiu’s goal is to visualize the overwhelming weight of the soul-destroying compromises of life during the Ceausescu years through clear-eyed, deeply humane stories. If “4 Months” is anything to go by, what Mungiu calls “urban legends” are more urban tragedies, chosen from the thousands of tales illustrating the small nicks and cuts not to the flesh but to the spirit.
Mungiu shoots each scene in one take, the camera either remaining steady as characters pass in and out of the frame, or trailing them as they walk. At a college dorm in 1987, roommates Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) go over the necessities for the coming day. Though it’s not yet clear what’s making her almost paralytically nervous, Gabita remains in the room while the pragmatic Otilia buys, barters and collects soap, cigarettes, money, etc. from schoolfriends and her b.f., Adi (Alex Potocean).
From the dorm Otilia heads to the hotel where Gabita booked a room, but the unfriendly receptionist claims to have no reservation and she’s forced to look elsewhere. Once that’s arranged, she goes to the rendezvous point to meet Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), a stone-faced illegal abortionist who’s not pleased that his precise instructions have not been met.
Bebe is a bully, using criticism as a way of overcoming any resistance. Discovering that Gabita is further along in her pregnancy than she claimed, he exacts a high price: not just money, but the sexual favors of both women before he’ll proceed. Panicked negotiations follow, but they submit.
With the rapes quickly over, Bebe assumes an almost solicitous bedside manner and commences with the abortion. The camera is fixed in another long take, Gabita’s stretched-out body, knees up, extending across the entire widescreen. Mungiu has a masterly ability to remain discreet while ratcheting up the discomfort level: the trust between the camera and the characters, and the respect Mungiu has for these women, never falters. After inserting a probe and injecting some fluid, Bebe tells them what to do when the fetus is rejected, and leaves.
When you expect cinematic time to pass more quickly, it’s something of a shock to realize it’s still light out when Otilia reluctantly leaves the hotel to attend Adi’s mother’s birthday party. With the camera centered on Otilia, tightly hemmed in by the other guests at table, a sense of discomfort takes hold, the young woman silently forcing down a maelstrom of emotions until they nearly burst through the surface. It’s a remarkable, sustained scene with an extraordinary performance at its center. She escapes as soon as possible, back to the hotel room, and Gabita.
Obviously, this is no “Vera Drake” knock-off, though there is more than a superficial similarity between Mike Leigh’s and Mungiu’s intense concentration on character. Here the style is even more stripped down, though the rigidity of form is so naturally achieved that the complexities are practically hidden from view. So careful at focusing only on what’s essential, Mungiu makes only one misstep when he lingers on a fetus — it’s a moment completely out of keeping with the rest of the film and serves only as wasted shock value.
Foremost among the many revelations is Marinca’s stellar turn as Otilia. It’s not just the way she transforms scripted dialogue into real-speak (a quality shared by the rest of the stellar cast), but her ability to convey all her inner struggles in silence. Vasiliu is equally fine, a frightened young woman desperate to end her ordeal.
Just as he proved with “Mr. Lazarescu,” d.p. Mutu (also producing) achieves miraculous effects with his observational camera, capturing all the necessities without ever feeling voyeuristic. His spaces, even when outside, remain claustrophobic — doors never provide escape, and night, with its sudden, unknown sounds, is especially menacing. Colors are all muted cement tones, capturing the crushing ugliness of life in the Eastern bloc.