I should say up front that the Romanian import 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is getting four stars from me based on admiration—partly due to taking a cinematic aesthetic that’s not exactly my dish of tea and making it work. The four stars are not for the film’s entertainment value, because this just isn’t the type of movie you’re apt to walk out of saying, “God, I loved that movie.” In fact, I overheard two exit comments to the contrary. The first was a woman telling her husband, “I can’t think of anyone we know I could recommend that to. I’m not even sure I liked it myself.” The second was someone remarking that the experience was “pretty heavy.” I lean toward the latter, but would add that I’m glad I saw it, even though I can’t imagine ever wanting to see it again.
That’s actually high praise when you consider I spent nearly a week not exactly relishing the prospect of two hours of Romanian-abortion drama meant to depict the cruel repressive conditions of life in Romania under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The more I read about the film—nearly all of it breathlessly positive—the lower my spirits sank, especially when I learned the film was in the deliberately stark mode of modern neorealism (a movement that originally started in postwar Italy, and was born more of necessity than artistic desire). When I then learned that director Mungiu had adopted a single-take aesthetic for each scene (a concept he cheats on constantly), something like outright dread set in—as evidenced by the fact that I put off seeing it till close to the last minute.
Make no mistake, the film is bleak and it’s unadorned. The one-shot/one-scene concept, however, works more than it doesn’t (even if Mungiu plays pretty loose with it). A lot of that has to do with the fact that the camera is almost constantly mobile. Yes, it’s handheld, but it’s not deliberately shaky. Moreover, the film’s lack of a musical score is probably only noticeable if you know about it. The characters, story and atmosphere are sufficiently compelling that you’re not likely to miss the score. I suspect a good bit of the film’s ability to sustain interest is its innate foreignness, with only flashes of the recognizable.
The story itself is pretty thin. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is a fairly levelheaded college girl with a roommate, Gabita Dragut (Laura Vasilu), who is anything but levelheaded. Gabita has gotten pregnant and wants an abortion, but abortions are a criminal offense in 1987 Romania—not so much on moral grounds, but because of a falling birthrate. That, of course, doesn’t mean they don’t happen—they just don’t happen legally. The problem—at least the main one—is that Gabita is one of those people who can do nothing for themselves and who take no responsibility for anything. She specializes in whining, lying and playing helpless—a perfect blend of selfishness and stupidity. As a result, everything about procuring this abortion is left to Otilia.
The few things that are given over to Gabita are totally botched. Her incompetence lands them in a hotel that would warm the heart of David Lynch in its sinister seediness. Gabita’s inability to get anything right also lands them in bad with the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov), who exacts a heavy price to make up for it.
The arrangements, the abortion and the aftermath are really all the plot there is to the movie—excepting a subplot concerning Otilia’s relationship with her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean). In some ways, it’s the subplot—and Otilia’s growing disatisfaction with the status quo and faltering belief in Adi—that seems more the point of the film, since Mungiu is out to depict the depths to which Romanian society sunk under Ceausescu.
The core drama, however, centers on the two young women and their often incomprehensible, seemingly co-dependent relationship. It’s virtually impossible to find anything to like about Gabita, but more often than not, the character you’re more frustrated with is Otilia, who seems a too-willing doormat for her friend’s selfishness. This, for me at least, is the aspect of the film that made it compelling viewing far more than any amount of social commentary inherent in its setting. Perhaps that’s because it’s the one thing that gives the film an identity that isn’t hemmed in by cultural considerations. This is not foreign—you’ve either had a relationship like it, or you’ve watched one up close. Whatever the case, it’s this relationship that makes the heart of the film universal—and what makes it the uncomfortable, yet worthwhile, experience it is. If you want to see it, go now, because by Friday it’ll be history. Not rated, but contains nudity, sexuality, adult themes and language.