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.