The Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a social problem drama that often feels like a horror movie. Romanian movies got a boost in attention a couple of years ago when The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, an epic-length account of a sick, increasingly comatose old man’s voyage through the medical bureaucracy, became one of the success stories of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival. Though less formally audacious than Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months is the better movie, with a powerful directness that can take a viewer’s breath away.
Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, it’s a simple story: in 1987, a pregnant college student named Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) arranged to have an illegal abortion and, accompanied by her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), sets out for the distant hotel room where she is to meet the abortionist (played by Vlad Ivanov). Abortion was outlawed in Romania in 1966, under orders from the Ceausescu regime. The movie is set during one day in a wintry 1987—just two years before the dictator was captured (and summarily executed) trying to flee the country after a coup.
Another recent Romanian film with a title that suggests a diary heading, 12:08 East Of Bucharest, depicts a local shoestring TV panel show where the guests discuss the 1989 revolution, fumbling and disagreeing with each other and ultimately bickering with people who phone in to challenge their memories of what happened. The movie is funny for the dryness of its approach to what should have been a thrilling moment in history—reduced, years later, to the petty bickering of people who seem to get on each other’s nerves more than Ceausescu ever did. You see some of that dryness in Mungiu’s portrait of a police state that is drabber and more colorless than any movie dictatorship you’ve ever seen. The people in it may not know that the government is crumbling from within and has only a couple more years to live, but they’re just going about their business. Their world only seems scary when they’re doing something they shouldn’t and things don’t go smoothly—and then, suddenly, it’s terrifying.
The central character turns out to be Otilia, the girl who’s just along for the ride to lend “moral support” to her friend. This turns out to mean that she’s the one who has to placate the scary, all-business abortionist when he decides that the girls haven’t brought enough money. She’s also the one who has to wander out alone into the night, in a strange city, to dispose of the fetus. (“You’ll bury it, won’t you?” Gabita asks. The abortionist’s best advice is to find a building in a bad part of town, go inside, and toss it off a roof.) In between these chores, she has to hook up with her boyfriend at his parents’ apartment, where she gets roped into making an appearance at a noisy, happy family dinner. The way Mungiu and his gifted inematographer, Oleg Mutu (who also shot The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) stage and shoot this scene, with Otlilia crammed miserably in the center of the frame while the others at the table crowd in on her, shows a special genius for conveying the way that everyday life can get on your last nerve when you’re preoccupied with something enormous that you can’t reveal.
Anamaria Marinca’s remarkable performance gives the movie its human center. In the scene where she works out a deal with the abortionist, she too is all business, but as the action grinds on, her emotional scars become more visible. Whatever you think about abortion, 4 Months does a fairly devastating job of making the case for the reasons why the procedure ought to be legally available. (And the movie, by focusing on Otilia, the girl who’s there to help, rather than Gabita, the girl with the problem, makes it clear that it ought to be a