[13 July 2008]
There is nothing pleasant, charming or remotely uplifting in the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Despite that bleak assessment, perhaps even because of it, this 2007 winner of the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palme d’Or is one of the most gripping, haunting, stunning, powerfully emotional, and just plain brilliant pieces of cinema to have been produced in the last decade. Filmmaker Christian Mungiu’s austere approach and social-realist sensibilities lend an uncompromising vision, honesty, and compelling authority to a terrifying story that is set (uncomfortably close) in the recent past.
The film’s setting is Romania in 1987—an especially cruel time period that simultaneously seems so eerily distant and historical yet, also, so tragically recent. Its central plot revolves around two young women, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) who are university roommates in a truly drab and provincial Romanian town. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days takes place over the course of 24 nerve-rattling hours as the two women try to secure an abortion for Gabita, who is several months pregnant.
Neither the circumstances behind Gabita’s pregnancy nor her reasons for seeking the abortion are ever explained. That Gabita is willing to risk prison, her health, social rejection and public condemnation to complete the procedure (where it is illegal under Romanian law) speaks to the gravity of her situation. It is difficult to ascertain whether Gabita’s personality, which is quiet, twitchingly nervous, insecure, fearful and virtually feckless, is a byproduct of her immediate situation, or is merely the accumulative sum of her character traits.
Even though 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is framed around Gabita’s pursuit of an abortion. the film really belongs to that of her roommate, Otilia. As a direct counterpoint to Gabita’s paralyzing fear and indecision, Otilia is forceful, motivated, smart and constantly aware of the dangers (both known and hidden) of stepping over the ever-changing, nebulous lines of state control. Between the two friends Otilia is more assertive and resourceful and knows how to maneuver within the secretive system where everything from foreign cigarettes to soap and tic tacs can be procured. So, naturally, it falls to Otilia to arrange the details of Gabita’s abortion.
Otilia takes to this task in the name of friendship and support. Her decision, however, should not be read as blind faith or approval for her friend’s actions (or, rather, lack of actions). Securing the money, arranging the hotel room, and even meeting with the abortionist—a necessarily harsh and opportunistic man called Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov)—falls to Otilia. The ironic cruelty that these treacherous duties, taken up under the oath of friendship, should unfairly fall to Otilia alone is not lost on this young woman. Otilia’s keen intelligence, unwavering determination and street smarts are an intoxicating mixture that hint at the struggles she has gone through in her own past.
Her relationship with Adi (Alexandru Potocean), her boyfriend (who comes from a more middle class background), reveals further insights into Otilia’s quiet struggle to bridge the gap between personal ambition to make a better life for herself and the invariable barriers that are placed before her. There is an underlying sadness, frustration and exhaustion in Otilia that is carried in her face and body. Strong, yet tired, her resolve and determination to endure the seemingly endless crush of daily life reveal a brave and stoic character with a natural modesty and quiet, dignified, and irrepressible humanity. Anamaria Marinca delivers a layered, controlled, and truly astonishing performance as Otilia, which will likely leave the audience in a state of haunted amazement and humbled appreciation for her talent.
From the film’s very title to its taught, precise direction and uncompromising cinematography 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is bound by and ever conscious of time. Specifically, the ironic cruelty of time ticking away so quickly in a space so tightly controlled. These women’s lives are lived in a box. From Otilia and Gabita’s shared dorm room—with its minimal touches of individuality—to the hotel room where the abortion is to take place. Each room is a bleak rectangle darkly housed in a larger block of long hallways and alienating spaces. Representing the larger control of the communist state, these women are all too aware that however well-defined and known their box is, there will always be the dichotomous danger of existing within the box and trying to break free from it.
However broken, run down, or just plain exhausted Ceausescu’s Romania of the late 1980s may seem, the relentless oppression, fear and danger are still palpable. This is registered not only on the characters’ faces but also in the hollowness of public spaces: city buses that transport people not between specific markers but, rather, between varying stages of desolation; barking dogs whose incessant howling rests somewhere along the tenuous line of true menace and total grief; and the reinforcing indifference of the city’s large, gray, and emotionless architecture that houses, protects and confines its citizenry.
Alongside Oleg Mutu, the cinematographer, director Mungiu has artfully captured the brutal reality and authenticity between the physical landscape of late 20th century communist-era Romania and the emotional interplay such deprivation, inattention and restriction inevitably creates in the personal lives of its citizens. Mungiu’s stark and unadorned direction is more than simple narrative construction and styling. His intense focus and precisely controlled direction is a masterwork of deception. For in those flat spaces hidden between the pauses, silences, and things unseen, Mungiu is able to reveal the multi-layered psychological truths of the film’s characters and give power and voice to their humanity, which must necessarily remain quiet.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is quite simply an exceptional cinematic triumph of the highest artistic order. This is a vital film that deserves as large an audience as possible. With any luck, the film’s recent release on DVD will pave the way and deliver that much deserved acclaim and wider appreciation.
The DVD comes nicely packaged with a host of interesting and informative supplementals. The special features include a documentary on the making of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, an interview with cinematographer Oleg Mutu, and a separate interview with Christian Mungiu, the talented writer, director and producer. While some may view such extras as snack food only for film geeks, I suspect that many people will delve into these bonus features with an eagerness and feverish zeal. For 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a masterpiece of modern cinema that deserves not only to be watched and appreciated but, also studied for years to come.