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January 23-29, 2008

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Mobra Films/Adi Paduretu
Moment of truth: Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) takes stock of a bid situation in '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.'

The Procedure

'4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days' looks at life in a world without legal abortions

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 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the best film from that corner of the world, is also a tremendously accessible film. While it explores a hot-button issue, it doesn't manipulate the viewers through the simple opposition of good heroines vs. evildoers. Instead, the film wracks you with the simmering suspense underneath a calm surface. The lead actress, Anamaria Marinca, puts it well when she says that the dialogue is a soundtrack to a story told in silence.

And this calm represents, in miniature, the surface calm of a utopian dictatorship. The story is 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 college dorm room in a part of Romania that is in 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.

Otilia is very pretty, with that champagne-colored hair that is not quite blond or quite brown. She has drive. Her technical degree means working in a factory, but it also means not heading back to the mudball small town she came from. Her roommate defers to her; Gabita seems younger, smaller, sadder.

The action begins with the two students ready to leave on a mysterious overnight errand, for which Otilia needs to borrow some money from her boyfriend. When she goes to pick up the money, he pressures her into attending his mom's birthday party.

Otilia is efficient at gaming the system, at knowing the black market, at getting the cigarettes she needs for petty bribes. She has cut a class, claiming it was her period, and now the inspectors want a doctor's note; a pack of cigarettes might fix that problem.

It is 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, and the two girls forgot the sheet of plastic they were supposed to bring for the procedure. Worst of all, Gabita fudged the dates on her pregnancy. She is actually four months gone. This takes what is already an illegal activity and puts it into a new category of offense, a murder with a penalty of five to 10 years.

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

The aftermath, when Otilia is washing up in the bathroom—scrubbing herself to get Mr. Bebe off of her—there's a shot of the back of her head, one moment of stillness against the camera's searching, endless tracking. Since the beginning, the camera has been following Otilia on the innumerable errands you have to go on when you live in a place where nothing works, like the blinking electricity in the halls or the gas lines that are useless after 8pm.

Raising the Curtain

Twenty years ago doesn't seem like a long time, but Mungiu had to strip down today's Romania to make this film; he had to take the advertisements away and remove the cars. Yet you are never really conscious of the work of an art director.

This film makes the worst of the Iron Curtain tangible, in a way it probably never could have been back when the commissars ruled. Romania's dictatorship seems only a few degrees different from our world; the film is 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 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days lies 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. The ghostly mask of middle age is already laid on Otilia's young eyes and mouth.

At the party, she is 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.

The camera stays still to watch Otilia in the center of a tangle of arms reaching across the table for glasses and ashtrays and treats. Meanwhile, Gabita is in who knows what kind of state, bleeding, perhaps feverish, alone in a second-class hotel. The scene brings back acute memories of youth, of the desperation to be away from the places where adults and duty force you to stay. 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.

Rights Wronged

Mike Leigh's Vera Drake showed how the iron grasp on reproductive rights is the pleasure of an upper-class regime; he suggested that working-class solidarity would overcome it. I have to believe that, but 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is probably the more accurate film.

This is the kind of story you hear at 3am, the sort of terrible, back-against-the-wall situation only young people and college students get into. Mungiu builds the story with such likeliness that it holds up to questioning later on. (Well, Gabita could have had the baby and adopted it out—nothing like a Romanian orphanage to build a child's character.)

The film expresses a bigger logic: When a society is rotten from top to bottom, a person has to be enterprising and seek every possible advantage. That's why, in his own mind, Bebe gets to keep his nice-guy status.

The film's notes describe how abortion became illegal in 1966. It is estimated that a half-million women died of botched abortions during the Communists' reign and that 1 million abortions were performed in 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 facing 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, seem 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, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Unrated; 113 min.), directed and written by Cristian Mungiu, photographed by Oleg Mutu and starring Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, opens Feb. 1 at selected theaters.

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