4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is another Criterion Month film that proves that sometimes it’s best to go into these types of movies knowing as little possible. While I was well aware that the film was critically acclaimed upon its release — most prominently by A.O. Scott and the Cannes Film Festival — I was less aware of why it was acclaimed. Considering it was a movie about abortion during the final days of communism’s grip over Eastern Europe, I was expecting it to be fairly grim and harrowing. Though I would say it is those things to an extent, I wasn’t expecting it to also be thrilling and genuinely suspenseful in a way that ended Criterion Month on an exciting note for me, rather than on a sad whimper.
This was not my intent when I chose the movies I did for Criterion Month this year, but I’m finding that a number of them turned out to be fairly political films set in countries whose political histories are not well-known. In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days we see Communist Romania in 1987 during the final years of Nicolae Ceaușescu, who had served as leader of the country since 1965. This was a time in which abortions were illegal, mostly because it was a way of increasing the population of Romania while also asserting control over the country’s women. This of course led to many women having to seek abortions illegally, while the number of women who died from these abortions was anywhere from 10,000 to 500,000.
During the first half-hour to 45-minutes of the film, we don’t even really know that the two women at the center of it are seeking an abortion, though we see that they’re clearly planning something of grave importance. We first meet Otilia (played by Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) in the place that they met, the dorm room they share at their university. We see Otilia bartering with a few other girls for money while also asking her boyfriend for money before checking to make sure that Gabriela’s reservation at a local hotel has been properly placed. After a testy exchange with a hotel clerk over whether she had a reservation, she finds another hotel to rent for the night. It’s after this that she meets up with a man of a particularly surly demeanor named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), who has agreed to perform to do some sort of favor for Otilia and Gabriela, which we finally learn is a termination of Gabriela’s pregnancy.
Before he can go ahead with the procedure, Mr. Bebe goes on a long 20-minute diatribe (done in a single take) where he makes the girls aware of the consequences of him performing this operation as well as the girls’. Otilia is less privy to sit there and let him talk to them this way, which just makes him more annoyed, threatening to leave before Gabriela convinces him to stay. The film then depicts the abortion process in a way that leaves some element of mystery while also making you feel like you’ve watched one of the more authentic depictions of this procedure on film. Otilia then has to go to a birthday dinner for her boyfriend’s mother, while her mind is clearly elsewhere and she has to hide the fact that she’s spent her evening doing something that could get her thrown in jail. The film then ends with one more gripping sequence of Otilia trying to conceal her actions as she must dispose of the fetus in an inconspicuous manner.
As I’ve somewhat alluded to already, this is a pretty intense movie. What’s most impressive is that it maintains its intensity by avoiding any sort of clichés that see the characters being placed in uncomfortable situations that feel like more like plot machinations than anything else. Sure, there are a few situations where we think for a second that Otilia might be on the verge of being caught as a co-conspirator in an illegal abortion. However, even these moments don’t ring as phony because they’re never dwelled on. Also, the film’s lack of a musical score and minimalist style makes it feel like these characters are just normal human beings placed in a high stakes situation, rather than characters caught in a slick thriller.
Another major aspect of what makes 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days so gripping is director Cristian Mungiu’s insistent use of long takes. I mentioned the conversation in the hotel room involving Mr. Bebe, which feels like the dramatic centerpiece of the film, as weird as that is to say about a scene that only involves three characters talking at length in a really drab setting. The other scene that sticks out to me is the dinner party that Otilia must go to, where we see a family of disparate Romanians conversing in a lively manner while the camera focuses on Otilia in one extended unbroken shot. Just from the look on her face, we see that her expression is completely out of place as she’s clearly distressed and clearly has her mind set on Gabriela laying in that hotel room waiting.
Obviously, abortion is a bit of a hot-button issue whatever era you’re depicting on film. However, I’m not sure that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is all that interested in taking a stance on abortion, perhaps as a result of having a man direct this story, but also because Mungiu seems most interested as using this topic as a way of exploring what it was like to live in Romania during the 1980s. This was an era that Mungiu recalled living through and seemed to be somewhat fascinated by, considering that his next couple of films were also set during this era. Though it seems that that was the case for a lot of the films to come out of the Romanian New Wave, which apparently was a thing in the mid-’00s.
This brings me to the final point that I’ll end on, which is that it seems that there have been a number of countries that went through their own “New Waves”, which I’m not sure I’d thought about much prior to this Criterion Month. I reviewed a movie from the Taiwenese New Wave just a few days ago, and while Karel Zeman’s films seemed to run parallel to the Czechoslovakian New Wave, I couldn’t help but think of that movement after watching The Fabulous Baron Munchausen. The thing that these movements are often influenced by is where their countries are at socio-economically and how much room they have for certain types of artistic voices. It’s something that I think even ties into Sean’s reviews and how hard its been for black filmmakers to find a place in a film industry as seemingly prosperous as America’s. But hey, as technology advances, more and more voices will have access to telling these stories the world over, and hopefully Criterion will continue to provide a platform for them.