CATEGORIES Drama, Foreign Language, Independent, Cannes, Theatrical Reviews, Festival Reports, Politics, Cinematical Indie, Movie News, Reviews, Cinematical
Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are college roommates. They may live in the wintry squalor of 1987 Romania -- in the last days of Communism -- but their lives seem familiar to us despite that gigantic difference; they have exams coming up, friends and lovers, future opportunities and current challenges. They may buy their perfume on the black market, but they still buy it -- they're kids, essentially. There's school; there's the joy and effort of friendships; there's the looming reality of future mandatory military service; most pressingly, Gabita needs to have an abortion -- in a rigidly-policed state where that's been illegal for decades. Otilia is going to help her -- How could she not? -- but neither of them are prepared for what that's ultimately going to cost.
Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days is the sort of film that will inspire a visceral reaction from most moviegoers -- a quick grimace, a darting look away: Wow, that sounds not-fun. And no, 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days is not 'fun' -- but it's incredibly affecting, magnificently acted and superbly made; in a lot of ways, it reminded me of last year's Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Film, The Lives of Others, insofar as both depict universal challenges of human existence -- what to do about one's problems, how those difficulties can poison how we deal with others -- with the harsh realities of fascist power making those challenges even more difficult to deal with. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to decide to have an abortion and see it through in the here-and-now; watching that agonizing choice played out with additional layers of challenge -- bribes, secrecy, covert meetings and the looming possibility of jail -- is achingly painful and fraught with tension.
Mungiu's film is naturalistic -- the cinematography is made up of either loose tracking shots or long, locked-down single-take scenes -- and we never have a scene without Otilia on-screen. (Gabita may be in trouble, but Otilia is the one who has to take action.) That doesn't mean, though, that the film is without craft; Mungiu's sense of timing and space is exquisite, and his actors give performances so good that they disappear into their roles. As Gabita, Vasiliu is stressed-out and desperate; Marinca's Otilia is more worldly-wise, more self-assured -- until she runs into the realities of what has to happen and how. Praise should also go to Vlad Ivanov, who plays Mr. Bebe -- the abortionist Gabita puts her life in the hands of.
Ivanov's performance is magnetically repellent; Bebe is a man who knows exactly what he's doing -- the risks, the dangers, the ending of lives -- and what he does has made something in him turn monstrous and meticulous, carefully calibrating how hard he can push his luck and the spirit of his charges. As I said, Ivanov is magnetic in his careful, soft-voiced corruption -- and what he ultimately asks of Otilia and Gabita is a grim, inescapable demonstration of the fact that making something illegal often simply places it outside the law. The scenes with the three sitting in a hotel room discussing the nuts-and-bolts of what has to happen and then the ugly business of payment -- in cash and more -- are fierce and blunt and matter-of-fact, and so superbly acted you feel as if you're watching a documentary. (There's one shot in these sequences -- with Bebe sitting talking to Gabita as she stands, her head cut off by the framing of the shot -- that says more about the physical realities of abortion than a thousand polemics.)
4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days is supposedly the beginning of a series of films Mungiu is hoping to make called The Golden Age, each about life in Communist Romania. I hope he's successful; if this film is an example of the kind of rough-hewn humanity and blunt realism we can expect in future films, I'd definitely seek them out. As it is, 4 Months 3 Weeks & 2 Days moved me and challenged me, made me feel and made me think, demonstrated the personal and political challenges of a heartbreaking choice that, in many ways, is no choice at all-- and that's a rare enough achievement, and one worthy of seeking out.