By Daniel Barnes
The first film in our Romanian New Wave festival was Corneliu Porumboiu’s low-key comedy 12:08 East of Bucharest, in which several men debate the existence of a “revolution” in their small town, with the arrived consensus that no one had the guts to revolt until dictator Nicolae Ceausescu had already stepped down. Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in 1987, in an unnamed small town not unlike the one portrayed in 12:08 East of Bucharest, and although his name is rarely if ever mentioned in the film, you can feel Ceausescu’s icy grip around the neck of every frame.
In just his second feature film, Mungiu unrelentingly shows us a Ceausescu-era world of paranoia and moral compromise. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is often unfairly thought of as “the abortion thriller,” but we are into Act 2 before abortion is even mentioned. Mungiu uses the first act to slowly build a universe of ingrained mistrust and suspicion, employing long takes to heighten tension and often leaving important information just out of frame.
Early in the film, our heroine Otilia (a wonderful Anamaria Marinca) attempts to secure a hotel room, and although there is seemingly no reason to deny her, a series of surly desk clerks working off an unseen registry gives her the third degree. As we soon discover, Otilia has reserved the room for her college friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) to get an abortion, a criminal act under the “natalist” policy of Communist Romania. Besides reserving the hotel room, the girls are forced to enlist the services of a skeevy black market abortionist played by Vlad Ivanov, the banality of evil wrapped in a members-only jacket.
There is a lot of potential for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to fall into the trap of exploitation; after all, this is a film that attempts to milk suspense out of the disposal of an aborted fetus. However, Mungiu is more interested in the shifting relationship between the lead characters than in cheap thrills, especially as Otilia learns that Gabita may be less guileless and more manipulative than she lets on, forcing Otilia to make a number of life-changing decisions.
Even though Mungiu provides a procedural, practically real-time portrayal of a back alley abortion, the centerpiece scene of claustrophobic suspense is not set at the hotel and does not involve the abortionist. Instead, it’s set at a birthday party for Otilia’s boyfriend’s mother that she is guilt-tripped into attending, while a terrified Gabita waits at the hotel for the abortion to take effect. Surrounded by insensitive and insipid doctors and lawyers, Communist Romania’s version of a bourgeois professional class, Otilia is haunted by the ringing of an unanswered telephone in the background, yet she is unable to break character and answer it. This leads to a confrontation with Otilia’s boyfriend in which she forces him to consider the potential consequences of their own sexual relationship.
If there is a problem with the film, it’s that it can be as severe and standoffish as the society it portrays – Mungiu does not “ratchet up” tension so much as “set it and forget it,” with the camera only coming to life during emotionally heated moments. But this is a minor quibble against a film that finds terror and transcendence in the mundane details of life under a dictatorship, a place where trust itself is a counterfeit currency.