This review was originally published on Pol Culture.
Writer-director Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a superb film. It won the Palme d'Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, but its low profile in the U. S. isn't surprising. It tells the story of two young women in Ceaucescu's Romania, and their experience with securing an illegal abortion after one becomes pregnant. The film sounds like a dreary, grungy piece of social realism, and coming from Europe, it's probably going to be slackly paced. In short, it's most likely a film that one couldn't pay U. S. audiences to see. The film is definitely a grungy piece of social realism, but it's redeemed by the dynamism of Mungiu's approach. It is captivating from beginning to end.
The film takes place over the course of a day in 1987. The two protagonists, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), are roommates in a university residence hall in Bucharest. Gabita is pregnant, and due to the Ceaucescu regime's strictly enforced pregnancy laws, she has arranged to get an illegal abortion. As the film opens, we see Otilia's preparations with helping Gabita--buying cigarettes and soap, borrowing the last of the needed money from her boyfriend, and haggling with hotel clerks to secure a room.
It's during Otilia's scenes with the hotel clerks that the differences between her and Gabita come into focus. When we first meet Gabita, she seems oddly dissociated from the fact that she's about to get an abortion. Otilia seems more engaged with the situation--she's running around doing errand after errand to get ready, and all one sees Gabita do is wax her legs. Gabita was supposed to make a reservation at a particular hotel, but Otilia has to haggle making arrangements at another once it becomes clear that Gabita never bothered. Gabita also sends Otilia to bring the abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), to the hotel in her stead. It's in clear defiance of his insistence that Gabita meet him. He's facing a substantial prison term if he's discovered performing an abortion by the authorities, and he's absolutely exasperated by the failure to follow his instructions. It doesn't end there; Gabita's flightiness has resulted in their being in a hotel other than one he approved (i.e. one that won't demand ID from him at the desk). She has also lied about how far along the pregnancy is, which could result in a more severe prison term if he's caught. She doesn't even remember to bring a plastic sheet for the bed. The story goess from this crisis point to Otilia's troubled relationship with her boyfriend. It concludes with the tense efforts to dispose of the aborted fetus.
Otilia is clearly a far more grounded personality than Gabita, and Anamaria Marinca's excellent performance captures both her determination and personal conflicts. She's caught between her friendship with Gabita and her disdain for Gabita's irresponsibility, and one can sense her sympathy with Mr. Bebe's aggravation when she tries to mediate things in Gabita's favor. The circumstances lead Otilia to literally prostitute herself to help her friend, and Marinca makes her anger and disgust quietly palpable. Marinca also conveys the tensions between Otilia and her boyfriend after Gabita's abortion sours things between them. Marinca's technical control is on stunning display in a dinner scene with the boyfriend and his family. Mungiu holds an extended shot of everyone at the table, with Marinca's face the focus of the composition. For several minutes, one watches her expression shift between boredom, impatience, and annoyance with the boyfriend's snobbish, self-absorbed family, who talk about her as if she isn't even there. Marinca never breaks character, and she keeps the shifts expressive and fluid; it's a bravura display of discipline and skill.
Mungiu's direction maximizes the impact of Marinca's performance in this scene, and the approach he takes is characteristic of his work throughout. He designs every scene in terms of counterpoints. In the dinner scene, he uses the staging and framing to play Otilia's stillness and silence off the dinner-table bustle and prattle of the boyfriend's family; the contrast brings her facial expressions out in stark relief. In the hotel-room confrontation with Mr. Bebe, he builds a powerful dynamic between the women's anxiety and Bebe's logical, dispassionate response to everything. The scene is also an extraordinary showcase for Vlad Ivanov. He paces his delivery of Bebe's lines terrifically well; he manages to sound mechanical and unaffected simultaneously. When Bebe finally loses his temper, the eruption of anger is like a slap in the face. But Mungiu's skills go beyond the dynamism of his staging and his capacity to showcase actors to their best effect. He also demonstrates a superb eye for verisimilitude: the setting is perfectly evoked, and the characters seem entirely of a piece with it.
Ultimately, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days manages to transcend the homeliness of its subject matter by being a terrific piece of suspense filmmaking. But it does not rely on the dread of melodramatic suspense; it uses the suspense of compelling dramatic conflicts. The haggling with the hotel clerks, the confrontation with Mr. Bebe, the experience at the family dinner--all are developed in terms of conflict, rising tension, and resolution. They are stunningly brought off. Cristian Mungiu's skill is such that one wonders what he couldn't tell an interesting story about. Here's hoping that Mungiu can find a path to success with U. S. audiences. They don't know what they're missing.