The closest thing American films had to a self-conscious masterpiece, in 2007, was Paul Thomas Anderson's picture There Will Be Blood . But in that film, Anderson's ambition exceeded his command of technique and social criticism. On the other hand, Romanian director Christian Mungiu has accomplished it, creating a period piece that seems to stand outside of time. It's called 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days . It's the real deal, all right – one for the ages.
The film takes place in Romania in 1987, under Ceausescu and communism. It begins as Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) travels down colorless hallways, from one cramped room to the next, in her block of flats, looking to obtain Kent cigarettes. I heard the director explain this in an interview. Because the cigarettes were all white, including the filter, they were visually distinctive, and a status symbol. They could open doors.
Otilia needs the cigarettes for a bribe. She also needs money for what she plans to do, and she flits from one source to the next like a bee pollinating flowers. She is determined and resourceful; she has to be. The Romania depicted here perfectly mirrors my experience of the then-communist Ukraine, in 1989. The paint was peeling everywhere. Light bulbs were out and not replaced. There were long queues for bread, let alone meat, and the store shelves were mostly empty. Everywhere, signs read, "under repair," which simply meant this or that was broken and would be fixed probably never. Faces looked tired.
Otilia is, we discover, arranging an abortion for her roommate, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). Abortions were illegal in Romania at the time; the pregnant woman, the abortionist, and anyone aiding them could go to jail. And because Gabita's pregnancy is long term– the title, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days refers to that – the abortion would legally be murder.
Greatly complicating things is the fact that Gabita is a twit. While Otilia scrambles to secure the resources for the abortion, Gabita is waxing her legs. Gabita has failed to book a hotel in advance, so Otilia has to use those Kents, and her wits, to phenagle one. Gabita is supposed to meet the abortionist, but chickens out at the last minute, and it falls to Otilia. The film's drama hinges on what one woman is willing to do for another, regardless of whether it's deserved.
I use the term "abortionist" because there is no evidence that Domnu' Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) is a doctor. There is a tangible menace about him. He threatens to back out each time the two women deviate in the slightest from his orders. But finally, in the hotel room at last, it looks like the abortion is going to happen. That is, until Bebe finally reveals the full extent of his sadism. This is a man who wields power over women, and likes it that way.
I'm afraid the story might be sounding repellent, or even exploitive. It is not. This is not a film with a political agenda to press, though those on both sides of the abortion debate could find ample evidence here to support their position. Rather, this is drama, a terrifically absorbing and affecting one. Though it is intense and sometimes disturbing, at no point does the film go for shock. This is a true story, after all, told to Mungiu by a friend; and while he was making the film, Mungiu says that many of the cast and crew approached him and said that the film exactly matched their experience, or the experience of a friend or family member.
How does the film gather such power? It's in the technique almost as much as the acting and subject matter. Mungiu sets his camera down and lets it run. He uses long shots and long takes that involve superb timing, but feel utterly naturalistic. His camera has a way of focusing your attention in some cases, as when the abortionist is laying out his tools. At other times, it causes your own eyes to do the work; if he isn't telling you where to look, you are allowed to, you have to, choose for yourself. Sometimes Mungiu picks up his camera and walks with it, even into near-total darkness. You feel like he can take you anywhere, and you fall into the film. 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is an experience you should have for yourself, and one you're not likely to forget.