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4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Thought-Provoking, Wrenching Drama

An insightful drama set in the waning days of the communist Ceausescu regime of Romania and centered on the efforts of a university student to obtain an illegal abortion, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (“4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile”), won the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine a film as unflinchingly raw and honest as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days being made in the United States where abortion remains an incredibly divisive, seemingly irresolvable issue.

On the surface, friends and roommates Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) are typical university students. They’re poor, but modestly optimistic about their futures once they graduate. With necessities rationed by the communist government and luxury goods almost nonexistent, Otilia and Gabriela turn to the black market. As they prepare for a weekend away, it becomes obvious that it’s no ordinary retreat. Gabriela has turned to the same black market to procure the services of an abortionist, Viarel Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). But getting an illegal abortion is extremely expensive and Gabriela’s resources are limited.

Gabriela’s willful passivity forces Otilia to borrow money from her boyfriend, Adi (Alexandru Potocean), the son of a well off doctor. It’s Gabriela’s passivity, however, that immediately causes complications. She breaks two of Bebe’s rules: securing a room at a designated hotel and meeting Bebe personally. For motives that remain unclear (self-interest, sadism or, perhaps a mix of both), Bebe begins to pressure the two women to make financial and personal concessions before he performs Gabriela’s abortion. The rest of the day and night centers on whether Gabriela will get the abortion and Otilia’s commitment to attend a dinner party at the home of her boyfriend’s parents.

In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Gabriela isn’t the lead character or protagonist. Otilia is. Gabriela’s passive-aggressive behavior, perhaps a result of her religious beliefs (she wears a cross around her neck, but doesn’t speak directly about any religious qualms), denial about her pregnancy and two equally negative choices, forces Otilia to take most of the risks, including potential run-ins with the authorities. But that makes 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days more than just a drama about obtaining an illegal abortion twenty years ago under a defunct form of government, but about the debilitating constraints on women that the lack of choice imposes on them, regardless of whatever other rights they might have.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days isn’t, however, a simple, simplistic polemic in favor of women’s rights over their bodies. Director Cristian Mungiu (Occident) doesn’t take sides in the abortion debate. He simply wanted to explore the consequences of obtaining an abortion in a country where it’s illegal (meaning a lengthy prison sentence if caught) and every choice carries negative consequences as honestly as possible. For the women, they face either unwanted motherhood, often without the means to support themselves or their babies, the shame and guilt of a black market abortion, and, of course, the physical risks and emotional toll that follow. And in Bebe, Mungiu has found the perfect embodiment of someone who exercises what little power he can obtain over others arbitrarily and capriciously, because he can.

Mungiu avoids flashy camerawork, filming 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in long, static takes and on gray, anonymous locations rather than sets, and letting ambient noise flood the soundtrack. As dour and bleak as that sounds, it isn’t, if primarily due to Mungiu’s choice to focus on Otilia. That choice helped Mungiu avoid all the usual tropes usually associated with “life-crisis” dramas, while simultaneously allowing him to craft a compelling story centered on a layered, conflicted character.

Through Otilia, Mungiu also personalizes his critique of communist-era Romania tottering under the oppressive, repressive rule of the Ceausescu regime and a stagnant economy. Ultimately, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is both a history lesson and a cautionary tale, but it’s also a deeply affecting drama.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars