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Photograph by Mobra Films/Adi Paduretu
Making Pretty: From left to right, Carmen (Sanziana Tarta), Dora (Madaline Ghitescu), Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Mihaela (Catalina Harabagiu) get gussied up in Cristian Mungiu's '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.'

'4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days'

With typical communist efficiency, the best movie of 2007 arrives in 2008.

By Richard von Busack

Most Americans would think of Romania as a strange country, which is why the wave of first-rate films coming out of there have an added shock of recognition. Cristian Mungiu's Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, the best film we've got from that corner of the world, is also a tremendously accessible film. It's set in Romania in 1987, in the "Golden Age," as Mungiu calls it sarcastically. Soon, the Ceausescus, megalomaniac husband and wife dictators, will be toppled and executed.

Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are students sharing a 12-by-12 dorm room in college, in a part of Romania that's neither the capital nor the bereft, starved-out countryside. Otilia is naturally the stronger of the two, a college student on the way up, with a boyfriend from a family of doctors. She's very pretty, with that champagne-colored hair that's not quite blonde or brown. She has drive. Her roommate defers to her; Gabita seems younger, smaller, sadder. The two are about to leave on a mysterious overnight trip.

Otilia is efficient at gaming the system, knowing the black market, bargaining for the cigarettes she needs as petty bribes to take care of things. It's Otilia who arranges the meeting with her friend's illegal abortionist.

He (Vlad Ivanov) is a balding, furtive man in his late 30s; he calls himself Mr. Bebe. "Trust is vital," Mr. Bebe insists, but all the demands he made weren't met. It's the wrong hotel so Mr. Bebe had to leave his ID card at the front desk. Gabita herself didn't make the connection in person, like she was supposed to. Worst of all, Gabita fudged the dates on her pregnancy. She's actually four months gone. This takes what was already an illegal activity and puts it into a new category of offense, a murder with a five to 10 years' penalty.

Sitting at its customary middle distance, the wide camera takes in the three participants in their final stage of negotiation. Since having his routine disturbed has inconvenienced Mr. Bebe, he decides to add a special surcharge into his end of the deal. Both ladies will be required to pay in advance.

This film makes the worst of the Iron Curtain tangible, in a way it probably never could have been back when the commissars ruled. It's a dictatorship that only seems a few degrees different from our world; it's like a mirror held at a narrow angle that reflects everything around us, only slightly skewed and with blurred margins we never noticed.

And the greatness of Four Months, Three Weeks ... is in the natural, melodrama-free acting. Otilia's old life is over, sitting in the white stillness of an empty tram car, on her way to a party she can't stand to be at. At the party, she's praised and teased by the boyfriend's relatives, who are raucous and jolly and heavy-handed about the girl's piss-poor rural background. And the boyfriend would like some attention too, of course, being a young man in love.

Meanwhile, Gabita is in who knows what kind of state, bleeding, perhaps feverish, alone in a second-class hotel. And Otilia's odyssey is not over yet, since it includes a nighttime trip to a dark high-rise that's rather worse than any image in an Eli Roth film.

The films notes describe how abortion became illegal in Romania in 1966. It's estimated that a half-million women died of botched abortions during the Communists' reign. And they note 1 million abortions the first year after the procedure became legal in 1980, "a number far greater than any country in Europe." One would surmise that poor women in a poor country short of contraceptives often find themselves faced by drastic measures.

This isn't the place to mark the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, or to note again that people who take their rights for granted soon lose them. For this reason, Juno's portrayal of an abortion clinic as a last resort for skeevy, itchy people or Knocked Up's shying away from any mention of the word abortion, seemed rather less than a joke to me. An even worse joke is played by moralists who believe people can be forced into good behavior by the law. If there's a practical, rational ground for people on either side of the abortion debate, this movie shows the way to it.

Movie Times 4 MONTHS, THREE WEEKS, 2 DAYS (Not rated; 113 min.), directed and written by Cristian Mungiu, photographed by Oleg Mutu and starring Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, opens Friday at the Nickelodeon in Santa Cruz.

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