Formally precise, thematically incisive, and altogether unnerving, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a bravura piece. With this tense dramatization of the events surrounding an illegal Romanian abortion (circa 1987), director Cristian Mungiu shows how the Communist regime’s intrusive, overweening laws created an environment of not only paternalism, sexism, and physical danger but also outright exploitation. (Abortions themselves were no picnic either, as he’s keen to demonstrate.) Talk about body horror — combining social melodrama, character study, and hair-raising thriller, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a riveting ordeal in three parts. You can’t watch, but you don’t dare look away.
The film divides fairly neatly into sections. The first deals matter-of-factly with the casually observed details of life in a girl’s dormitory as the pregnant Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) gathers her cash and her wits to face the day ahead, which is planned to include a hotel stay and a meeting with an unpleasant stranger — the wickedly named Mr. Bebe — who will induce a miscarriage of the unwanted fetus inside her. The film’s protagonist is not Gabita but Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), her more wordly roommate — posing as her sister — who spends the morning doing legwork to gather necessary funds (oh, how the problems here are exacerbated by a scarcity of cash) and make hotel arrangements. The second section deals with the abortion itself — it’s a long sequence with a dreadful villain that’s fraught with a sense of as much menace and impending peril as anything Hitchcock ever directed. The final segment takes place in the aftermath.Through it all, Otilia and Gabita are navigating a narrow path of temporary escape from a society that claims an interest in their every coming and going.
Mungiu’s camera technique is superlative but hardly flashy. Mostly he plants it in a corner of a room — in the dormitory, in the hotel room, or at the chatty dinner party that takes place on screen in what feels like maddening real time — with a wide-angle lens taking in the activity. That strategy is aided by straightforward, naturalistic lighting decisions (by Oleg Mutu, who also shot The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) and a knack for precise set design (by Mihaela Poenaru). In one shot, the camera seems to be positioned behind and above Gabita’s head as she lays in bed, carefully motionless, waiting for something to happen between her legs. We see her limbs and feet at the bottom of the frame as Otilia fidgets in a chair, gets up, exits frame, re-enters, sits in a different chair. Gabita’s two legs find visual echoes in the frame’s largely symmetrical composition — the two chairs flanking a chest of drawers, the two oddly shaped light fixtures affixed to the wall — but there’s a single red flower in a vase that, in this context, suggests a vaginal probe and a splash of blood. The image achieves a terrible elegance.
Like a good horror movie, 4 Months benefits from a clear-eyed frankness about disturbing matters. It doesn’t flinch, blink or turn primly away from unpleasantness. The film is obviously willing to engage with disturbing subject matter, and that attitude gives it credibility and tension and fearsomeness. Exactly what kind of sacrifice is Otilia willing to make for her friend? Just how much more poorly are things going to get for poor Gabita? Will there be blood? At one point, Otilia leaves her friend’s side for a sizable portion of the film’s running time. Her decision provoked a high level of anxiety inside my own head, an emotional response I interpreted at first as impatience with the filmmaker’s strategies. (It was only after the film was over that I realized that my nervousness was exactly the reaction Mungiu meant to elicit.) By the time Otilia returned to the hotel I was prepared to see anything — I would hardly have been surprised had the lobby suddenly filled to overflowing with gallons and gallons of blood, elevator doors burst open and its fixtures and furniture floating across the screen (a la Kubrick’s bizarre trailer for The Shining). Seeing this film is an experience so nerve-racking it can give you nightmares while you’re still watching it.