A modern tragedy

Is '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' as accomplished, thought-provoking and emotionally engaging as all its critical acclaim would indicate? Yes.

4 months3weeks2days  (photo credit: Courtesy)
4 months3weeks2days
(photo credit: Courtesy)
4 Months, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS 4 stars Directed and written by Cristian Mungiu. 113 min. In Romanian, with Hebrew titles only Is Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year and a host of other prizes, as accomplished, thought-provoking and emotionally engaging as all its critical acclaim would indicate? Yes. Is this drama about a young student helping her friend get an illegal abortion during the dark, later days of the Ceausescu regime exceedingly demanding and painful to watch? Definitely: It's the cinematic equivalent of having root canal with no anesthesia. Ultimately, although you may be stunned with the despair of it all when you leave the theater, it is a rewarding movie. Director Cristian Mungiu has made the most lauded film in Romanian history (and practically the only lauded film in Romanian history) by artfully using this abortion drama to reveal the horrors of totalitarianism. That may sound like a message on a bumper sticker, but Mungiu's approach is the opposite. He piles up subtle details and takes you into the lives of two women to gradually show the indignities suffered by intelligent, thoughtful people at the mercy of a merciless system. I don't remember anyone mentioning Ceausescu or criticizing the regime explicitly in any way. The characters simply cope with their reality. The lack of an explicit political message is similar to that of the Dardenne brothers in their films about working-class life, such as The Promise or The Child. Mungiu's low-key approach also resembles the Dardennes' in that he uses a fixed camera and long takes most of the time. The lighting is flat and although the actresses are lovely, nothing here looks very good. Mungiu also evokes the Dogme 95 school of naturalistic filmmaking in that all the action takes place in a single day, in what feels like real time. The story is simple: Gabita and Otilia are roommates. Gabita is pregnant and has arranged to meet with an abortionist that day. Gabita seems paralyzed as Otilia scurries around their dormitory, buying cigarettes, playing with a kitten and packing for the illegal procedure. Otilia goes to check that the hotel room Gabita has reserved is waiting for them and discovers that a nasty desk clerk has no record of it. Otilia runs from hotel to hotel until she finds one that is available, although the city of Bucharest as shown in this movie is so bleak it's hard to imagine why anyone would want to visit: Maybe all the rooms are full of women having abortions. Then Otilia meets Dr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), a brusque, nasty young man. They surrender their identity cards at the reception area in order to enter the hotel room, and Dr. Bebe is furious that the room is not at the hotel where he likes to work. Threatening not to carry out the procedure because his instructions were not followed precisely, he uses Gabita's desperation and Otilia's love for her friend to extort a disgusting price for his services. Although Gabita focuses on the end result - getting the abortion - the humiliation etched on Otilia's face makes it clear: She will never be the same. But she has been bullied by her boyfriend into accepting an invitation to his mother's birthday party and heads off to this event. There, the fact that she has gone through an ordeal is obvious to her boyfriend. He prods her into telling him what's going on, and it's clear that she can never have the same kind of love for him she had before. She doesn't trust him and knows that in another few months, she may be facing the same fate as Gabita, having an abortion with the father of the baby nowhere in sight. Otilia leaves the party as soon as she can, running back to Gabita. There are moments and images concerning the abortion itself that will be hard for the squeamish, but what weighs far more heavily is the cosmic hopelessness presented here. Of course, it's possible to see the film as a look at a vanished and evil time and place, but it's a story that will evoke a response in anyone who feels powerless, anywhere. Anamaria Marinca's acting and all the performances are so powerful that it's hard to believe that these are actors and not participants in a documentary. Quietly, Marinca makes vivid the horror of the story. She makes it plain that he real tragedy here has nothing to do with abortion, but with the destruction of Otilia's kindness and love of life.