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4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

Written and Directed by Cristian Mungiu

Starring Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu

Not Rated

Now Playing in Limited Release

These days, even when its subject is abortion, it’s hard for a film to be genuinely affecting, or even feel new. But Cristian Mungiu’s astonishing “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” insists on confronting abortion with a kind of honesty and force that will leave even the most hardened viewer a little dazed. And yet it would be too easy, and unfair, to label 4 months as simply an “abortion movie”; it would have been easy (and probably even successful) for Mungiu to construct the kind of gritty, mildly simplistic abortion movie most of us expect. But 4 months extends itself beyond any of these expectations and attempts something much more ambitious: to represent a harrowing day in the life of a Romanian college student in a way shatters the separation between film and viewer, and provides us with life, in its truest sense. It succeeds and it feels very, very new.

The film takes place in a single day; it traces the terrifying journey of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she assists her roommate and friend, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), in procuring an abortion during Ceausescu’s communist Romania in the late 1980s, when such procedures were illegal. From the beginning, the camera and Otilia feel inseparable, and Otilia becomes a sort of universal guide in the film. She leads the terrifyingly inept Gabita through the entire procedure and shoulders the burden of the ordeal to a horrifying extent. In the same way, Otilia is our guide and our conscience as the film ventures through the dark, unsettling alleys, seedy hotels, and vivid households of Ceausescu’s Romania, full of paranoia and uneasiness, but more prominently, life. By the end of the film, with Otilia at our side, we have been presented with the limits of both cruelty and friendship, and have explored a society at its truest pitch.

The most unexpected thing about the film is that, despite a modest budget at his disposal, Mungiu demonstrates a rare aesthetic brilliance. Mungiu employs long, sustained shots that encompass as much detail as they possibly can, as well as a kind of camerawork that pops with vitality. “4 Months” can often be aesthetically overwhelming and is able to create scenes that ingrain themselves into our memory through the unspoken emotion of the camera. It is hard to forget Otilia stumbling through the Romanian streets, engulfed in almost total darkness and with no companion but the quivering camera. Mungiu is often meticulous in the composition of his scenes: a shot of dinner party is arranged like a painting and its depiction of Otilia enveloped by other dinner guests is witty, claustrophobic, and powerful.

The performances in “4 Months” are so globally subtle and believable that it almost goes without notice. Every character, no matter how frustrating or unlikable — and the abortion specialist is pretty monstrous — avoids caricature. If Mungiu’s goal is to create a broad portrait of Romanian life, it is these performances that make it work so fundamentally. And, of course, Marinca and Vasiliu are fantastic as the film’s core and its driving force. Their friendship is often strained enough to make you cringe, but the actresses complement each other beautifully, and their interactions are some of the best parts of the film.

During the closing scene of the film, a Romanian wedding reception takes place in the background. The scene is modest: through the window there is a shabby hotel reception hall filled with unknown guests dancing as Romanian music quietly drones on. It’s a detail that has no real relation to the action in the forefront of the scene, but it’s also one that, more than anything, is indicative of how much of Mungiu’s heart and camera is devoted to the practices and nuances of Romanian life. So much of the details that compose the film feel so natural and understated that, after leaving the theater, I wondered aloud to a friend whether every little detail in the film could be constructed, or whether many just … sort of … happened. Before he replied, I decided the answer hardly mattered; they exist in a film as real as anything I can compare it to. “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days” is a movie I find myself unable to question.