IFC Films
Opens on 1 February in select cities

Unfolding within an emotionally exhausting twenty-four hour period, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is probably as well-endorsed by the Romanian tourism board as Taxi Driver was for New York City. Set in 1987 Bucharest, when the country was still in the grip of Communism, director Cristian Mungiu and cinematographer Oleg Mutu take the viewer on a grittily macabre journey through a city that is seemingly all underbelly.

The film’s premise emerges from where governmental policy and public interest diverge; under Communist rule, Romania outlawed most abortions and stopped importing contraceptives, making them quite scarce. By 1984, the state had imposed mandatory monthly gynecological exams to ensure that the female citizenry was participating in their patriotic duty to increase the population. Out of this scenario we find university roommates Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) naively scrambling to arrange an illegal underground abortion for the latter, who has let her unwanted pregnancy linger for over four months (hence the film’s title).
It quickly becomes clear that Gabita, a sweet enough girl wearing a gold cross around her neck, is relatively ignorant to the gravity of her situation and has made a series of ill-planned decisions. Otilia, in the role of the good friend, must run all of Gabita’s errands to arrange the meeting between them and the sleazy abortion doctor named Domnu’ Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), trekking across town to meet him near a garbage dump and haggling a deal for a room in a nearby hotel. A terse, sinister man, yet at times seemingly nonchalant and reasonable, Bebe first appears on-screen as a man who is looking to provide help to those who need it. In a country where anything, from candy to cigarettes, is bought and sold on the black market, men like Bebe serve an obvious, pseudo-legitimized function. By the time he steps out of frame for the last time, he has done for Gabita what she asked – but at a great personal cost to Otilia that her friend barely seems to acknowledge. Bebe requires Otilia to give up her body to him as a compromise for the insufficient payment she and Gabita have managed to come up with, and Otilia later begins to dread that her own sexual choices with her boyfriend may soon land her in the same predicament as Gabita.

It is with Otilia that Mungiu and Mutu choose to travel throughout the film. The hand-held camera that follows her closely is eternally shallow in focus, often completely obscuring objects more than a few feet from the lens. As she wanders out into the trash-strewn streets at night, oppressive darkness, claustrophobic close-ups, and Mungiu’s pallid green color palette produce an almost nauseating tension that is maintained throughout the length of the film. Cuts of agonizing length make Otilia’s discomfort real to the viewer, with the camera locked onto her like a lingering stare. Upon her return to the hotel – Gabita’s procedure finished – both Otilia and the camera hover over the discarded fetus. It is a visual dare on the director’s part that tests nerves and endurance alike. This is bold, brave, incredibly effective filmmaking; the treatment may not be all that pleasant, but then neither is getting a secret abortion in a dingy hotel room.

For Otilia the entire episode is an uncomfortable and ultimately thankless favor; Mungiu projects his character’s emotions on screen with a remarkable clarity that will have audiences shifting uneasily in their seats. Otilia is just as powerless as the viewer, unable to change or retract the regrettable events set in motion and privy to circumstances that present very few sensible alternatives. In the end, all that Otilia has to show for her efforts is a wake of broken trusts and bitter silences that must be kept for a lifetime.

Mungiu’s message is not so much condemning or condoning abortion as a political issue. Besides employing a visceral visual style that fits the setting and characters perfectly, the director manages to expand a cautionary tale about an emotionally scarring event into an example of a government disregarding the practical needs of the people, and the lengths to which those people will extend themselves to in order to get what they need.