'4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days' offers up a starkly rendered ordeal

The latest social-realism drama to emerge from Romania's New Wave is about a women seeking an illegal abortion during the Ceauşescu regime.

Adi Paduretu/Mobra
Survivors: '4 Months' unwinds in small-town Romania, in 1987.

"4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" is a harrowing odyssey about an illegal abortion and yet, moment by moment, it's bursting with life. Set in small-town Romania in 1987 under the waning but still tyrannical Ceauşescu regime, it depicts 24 hours in the lives of two college girls – the pregnant Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and her fiercely loyal roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) – as they attempt to elude the authorities.

On its simplest level, the movie is a straightforward chronicle of the events leading up to the abortion, and its immediate consequences. But it is so much more than that. Cristian Mungiu, the writer-director, making only his second feature, opens up an entire society for us. The human drama he elicits, in all its pity and terror and gumption, is Chekhovian.

The story develops slowly but inexorably. Gabita gathers her necessities for a stay over in a hotel while Otilia barters for soap, money, cigarettes. Otilia thinks she has secured a hotel only to find out her reservation was never recorded; she must then scurry to find another room. She meets with the abortionist, a softly bullying man who calls himself Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), and endures his condescension.

Throughout these trials Otilia is impelled to help her friend, and her split-second choices, her capacity to lie to the desk clerks, to Mr. Bebe, to anyone who would impede her mission, is almost frighteningly adept. She has learned how to endure under totalitarianism, although the cost to her is startlingly apparent. Her delicate beauty is being eroded by the horrors of the society she must navigate to survive.

The focus throughout the film is on Otilia. Gabita is a much more flighty presence. She's an innocent, but Mungiu doesn't make the mistake of sentimentalizing her. By leaving virtually all of the details of the abortion to Otilia, and by lying to Mr. Bebe about the extent of her pregnancy, Gabita endangers her friend as well as herself. Both women pay an excruciating price.

Mungiu films each sequence in long, unbroken takes, and his unwavering gaze has a pitiless force. Because his actors are so extraordinary, he can afford to let the camera explore their moods and machinations in something like real time. This is social realism elevated to the realm of art. Everything in this film – from the actors to the unsparing cinematography to the landscape of dingy tenements and back alleys – conspires to tell the same sorrowful story.

The abortion itself is depicted tangentially; there is also a very brief and highly disturbing shot of the fetus.

At no point does Mungiu moralize about the nature of abortion. He is not advocating anything in "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days." All he is doing – and it is everything – is showing how good people and bad are embroiled alike in this tragedy.

If Otilia comes across as a heroine, it is because, in the end, her selflessness in the service of her friend is at such a cost to herself. The grim face she offers up for us in the final shot is the emblem of her ordeal.

Marinca's performance, with its hair-trigger shifts and intuitions, is peerless. A sequence in which she must endure her boyfriend's family's dinner party is a model of how much a great actress can pack into a single, extended reaction shot. And Ivanov, in a smaller role, makes Mr. Bebe into a man for whom necessity is everything – he's a monster who, like everybody else trying to survive in this society, has his reasons.

It may seem perverse to contend that a movie with such a harrowing subject is nevertheless revivifying. But the New Wave of Romanian cinema is the most exciting in the world right now. "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" is its latest masterpiece. Grade: A

This film is not rated.

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