PRINT January 2008


Cristian Mungiu

Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 113 minutes. From left: night receptionist (Tania Popa), Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), and Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov).

THIS IS ONE TOUGH FILM, this 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. As sparingly made as it is unsparing emotionally, Cristian Mungiu’s second feature won the Palme d’Or at Cannes 07, confirming that a Romanian New Wave has indeed broken, seemingly overnight. In the past several years, three other Romanian films have won major prizes at Cannes, including Cristi Puiu’s eviscerating Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), an astonishing track record for a country that had virtually no presence on the international film map for the second half of the twentieth century and that currently produces fewer than twelve features a year.

One of the first films to suggest that something vital was happening in Romanian cinema was Mungiu’s debut feature, Occident (2002). An intricately shaped comedy composed of three overlapping stories and ranging from bittersweet to slapstick, it is set in a small town in the “new” Romania, which is still so bleak that many of its most enterprising young citizens want only to escape to the West. The film could have been tracing the trajectory of Anamaria Marinca, the brilliant star of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, who moved to London after winning a 2005 BAFTA Best Actress Award for her first major screen role, as a young woman lured into prostitution in David Yates’s 2004 television drama Sex Traffic. With its excellent, underused soundstages and well-trained technicians and actors, Romania has become one of the favorite production spots for big-budget US and European films, including, recently, Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth (2007), in which Marinca has a small role. According to Mungiu, he learned how to make movies by working on crews for foreign productions shooting in Bucharest. It is a classic instance of mastering the rules in order to better break them.

Set near the end of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s reign of terror (1965–89), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a film about abortion. It is also about strategies of resistance and about trust, loyalty, and the responsibility one bears to others and to one’s own moral code. Ceauşescu made abortion a crime against the state, punishable by the imprisonment of everyone involved. Romanian orphanages overflowed with hundreds of thousands of unwanted children, and some half-million women died as a result of back-alley abortions. One of the first acts of the post-Ceauşescu government was to make abortion legal.

Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 113 minutes. From left: Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu).

The bare-bones narrative of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (which was both written and directed by Mungiu) describes a day in the life of two college roommates, Otilia (Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). Gabita is pregnant, well into her second trimester. In denial about her condition, she has waited overly long to contact an abortionist, and now she is so panicked that she relies entirely on her roommate to carry out the details. We follow Otilia as she buys cigarettes and sundries from the campus black marketeers, reserves a hotel room, rendezvouses with the abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), and negotiates with the hotel receptionist for Bebe to go up to the room, where a terrified Gabita is waiting. Discovering that she has lied to him about how advanced her pregnancy is, the abortionist demands an additional payment: sex with each of the girls in turn. In fact, Mr. Bebe isn’t especially interested in the money or even the sex. What turns him on is having the power to subjugate and humiliate two young women. Mr. Bebe may be breaking the law, but he is nevertheless enforcing the power dynamics of the totalitarian state.

Though some critics have claimed otherwise, there is no doubt that 4, 3, 2 sides with the right of women to safe, legal abortions and against the state’s having any say in the matter. The film, to employ the familiar American euphemism, is pro-choice. For Mungiu, however, choice is not a euphemism any more than abortion is a metaphor. Mungiu is, first of all, a realist filmmaker, and abortion is what the film realistically engages. It is a procedural thriller in much the same way as is Bresson’s A Man Escaped. But because the choice of whether or not to have an abortion is serious under any circumstances, and particularly so when the procedure is illegal, attention is focused on choice itself—the countless choices we make every day—as the determining factor of our character and of our humanity. Otilia is a hero because she is utterly conscious of the choices she makes, large and small, in the course of assisting her friend, and she takes responsibility for them, even when they require her to take liberties with the truth (telling white lies to the hotel receptionist, for example) or to do things that are abhorrent to her (having sex with Mr. Bebe). No choice is without compromise. Gabita is not a hero, because she evades responsibility for the central choice she has made—to procure an abortion—lying about the details to herself and to her best friend at every turn. That the film evokes pity for her rather than contempt is evidence of its generosity.

Just as 4, 3, 2 makes us hyperattentive to the choices its characters make, so, too, does it focus our attention on the choices Mungiu has made in representing them. Working with the extraordinary cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who hand-holds a 35-mm camera with a scope lens so that it is almost as steady as it would be on a tripod, Mungiu shaped the film out of a series of extended shots, some of them several minutes in duration. The handheld camera gives the film an immediacy it would not have if it had been shot using tripods and dollies. In the opening sequence, the camera follows Otilia and Gabita as they make preparations to go to the hotel to meet the abortionist, tracking behind Otilia as she walks up and down the corridors of the dorm. It is a full fifteen minutes before we know what the women are up to, and yet there is something about Otilia’s determined gait, the tense set of her shoulders and back, and the way the camera isolates her that generates a sense of free-floating anxiety. As the film goes on, Mungiu alternates between exterior tracking shots—following Otilia through deserted streets as she carries out various tasks that cause her psychological anguish at least commensurate with the actual danger they put her in—and static interiors where everything depends on the actors, particularly on their ability to convey inner feelings and thoughts through glances, body language, and, well, just by thinking and feeling what their characters would under the circumstances. Marinca is an exceptionally transparent actor: Although the character keeps her cards close to the vest, we always know exactly what is going on inside her. The scene in which Mr. Bebe negotiates his price with Otilia and Gabita (perverse foreplay for him, slow torture for them) is as amazing a piece of ensemble acting as I’ve ever seen—no matter that the actors seem to be doing no acting at all.

Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2007, still from a color film in 35 mm, 113 minutes. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu).

Despite the documentary, fly-on-the-wall quality that the handheld camera imparts to the image, the structure of the film and the determination of what we see and what we don’t are rigorously conceived. Because the subject of the film is women’s bodies and a woman’s right to control what she does with hers, the director’s choices of camera angles and of temporal ellipses through editing are unusually charged. The film constantly negotiates the opposing pitfalls of exploitation and evasion. Mungiu shows, for example, Mr. Bebe inserting the probe into Gabita’s vagina (he uses a device only somewhat less primitive than the infamous wire coat hanger), but because the procedure is shot from the side, Gabita’s bent bare leg blocks the sight of his hands and her genitals at the moment of contact. Similarly, we do not see Mr. Bebe having sex with either of the women, although we do see Otilia emerge from the bedroom naked from the waist down. Thus we are confronted with the body that has been violated, and thus we must also confront whatever reactions we may have to that body’s desirability and vulnerability.

But by far the most difficult decision Mungiu makes is to show the fetus lying on the bathroom floor. We are given time to contemplate how serious this choice is as we watch, for forty-five seconds, Otilia standing at the doorway of the bathroom, silently looking down at what we know is there, out of frame. Then, as she moves away, the camera dips down and we see, unmediated by any character’s point of view—with our own eyes, as it were—the image that gives substance to the abstract title 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Not yet viable outside the womb, the fetus nevertheless has a discernible head and limbs. It is certainly not an easy image to look at, but it is absolutely necessary for us to see it. The image does not diminish the film’s stand in favor of abortion rights. It simply shows the flesh-and-blood reality of a second-trimester abortion. If one believes that filmmaking is a moral act (in the Bazanian sense)—and Mungiu clearly does—then this is the image that cannot be denied.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days opens in New York on January 25 and in Los Angeles on February 1.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Sight & Sound and Film Comment.