Just a few weeks before I saw “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” the grand-prize winner at the last Cannes Film Festival, I spoke with a woman who told me about one of the most horrid memories of her life.
In college, she accompanied a friend who went to a doctor for an illegal abortion. When she exited the office, the friend seemed relieved, but somehow, some way, my friend, who went to offer support, is still haunted by the memory of a frigid morning in Manhattan when her roommate exited the doctor’s office showing no emotion. “It was like she had gone in for a tooth extraction. I don’t know why, but I felt that fetus was mine,” she said. “It was like it was my baby.”
I recalled that conversation as I watched Christian Mungiu’s movie centering on an illegal abortion in Communist Romania, where, if caught, a woman would land in jail for up to 10 years.
It is 1980, and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) leaves her university dorm with Gabita, her pregnant roommate, played by Laura Vasiliu. As they check into a hotel administered by suspicious clerks ready to inform authorities, we sense danger heightened by intrigue. Soon, they will receive a visitor, the abortionist himself. He is Bebe, played by veteran Romanian actor Vlad Ivanov. He is cold and clinical, indifferent to his task. He has his special briefcase containing a probe and other instruments he places on a tablecloth. Before he leaves, he will extract more, not from the “patient,” but from her friend, who seems to be more emotionally connected to the situation than the victim.
“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” is a harrowing testament to the confines of political oppression, and doubtless people on both sides of the abortion issue can cite the movie to further their cause. Catching a brief glimpse of the fetus on the bathroom floor is a morality reality check, while the plight of a woman having to resort to illegal and perilous means will give ample ammunition to those who support a woman’s legal right to choose.
The movie transcends those issues by presenting us with stark human reality. Like a strong and decent work of art, the movie does not preach but presents a common situation with ferocity of purpose. We worry about the fate of Gabita. Will she hemorrhage? Will she perish in that stark hotel room? Will some obsequious civil servant smell trouble and report both women to the authorities?
In a touch of sobering brilliance, Mungiu concentrates on Otilia, the friend, who sacrifices for her seemingly indifferent roommate. Through Otilia, we feel the gravity of the predicament, as we follow her through the dingy backstreets of Bucharest, evading real or imaginary informers, running up the stairs of buildings with an incriminating sack. We follow her to a birthday party at her boyfriend’s house. We are with her as she sits at the table, listening to conversations that seem trivial. We know what is on her mind as her friend lies in a hotel room. We know just what Otilia has done for Gabita. All of those travails are rendered with stark objectivity, turning this somber and moving film into a masterpiece of naturalistic art.
For some ridiculous reason, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” did not receive an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. It should have won hands down.
‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’
WRITTEN AND DIRECTED BY Christian Mungui
STARRING Laura Vasiliu, Anamaria Marinca and Vlad Ivanov. In Romanian, with English subtitles
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes