Not much seems to be happening at the beginning of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamani si 2 Zile), and if I didn’t know better I’d think it might be shaping up to be a modest slice of life film that evokes, perfectly, the decrepit character of late-Communism/late-Ceau?escu Romania—something like the first half of 12:08 East of Bucharest, especially as 4 Months… is even kind of funny at points. All that humor completely evaporates, though, in due time, as one realizes that the descending character of the title is a countdown of sorts, one that parallels the gripping propulsion that drives the film forward to its rattling blast-off.
4 Months… has a decidedly simple story: an abortion is arranged, performed and… curtain; but Mungiu, a master director, delivers it with devastating pathos and a terrifying authenticity, providing a blunt look at the horrors—that is, the simple reality—of (illegal) abortion. His camera hardly ever cuts within scenes; it simply observes and follows, avoiding the manipulative sensationalism—there’s also no score, for instance—a lesser director might easily have fallen into.
The only problem with 4 Months… is that it comes too soon; an emotionally exhausting second act—featuring the act itself—leads to a mercifully relenting third (that, once again, is even kind of funny at points), but the state of numbness the film produces is hard to get out of, leaving the audience more trapped than captivated, much like the two goldfish, swimming in a tank inarguably half-empty, on which the film opens. (As Armond White writes, the new Romanian directors “have inherited Ceausescu’s fascistic egotism: Their movies make audiences suffer as they claim to have suffered.”)
In the film’s 1980’s Romania, with its chipped wooden-walls and peeling paint, one imagines that even water for the fish is hard to spare. No amenities seem available outside of the thriving black market; nothing worth having, anyway. (One character has a taste for orange tic-tacs—hey, it’s just like Juno, though devoid of any and all cuteness.) Also available on the black market are abortionists, as abortion is against the law in the Communist dictatorship, one of whom Laura Vasiliu has enlisted to terminate her pregnancy. But the film’s focus is on her friend and dormmate, Anamaria Marinca, who is the one who must do all the legwork: renting the hotel room, meeting the man who’ll perform the procedure.
As there’s more than one way to perform an abortion, especially in a country where you can’t even score a pack of Kents, Mungiu is able to amass an incredible amount of tension building up to the procedure’s execution. Don’t worry, there’s no coat hanger involved, but it’s still agonizingly intense: the film’s second act plays out in a nearly unbroken take as the pregnant girl, her friend and the abortionist, Vlad Ivanov, sit around the rented room and discuss the procedure in troubling detail—it’s unsparing in its procedural description—and engage in an intensely heated negotiation of terms that mercilessly concludes in devastating sexual exploitation. Vasiliu, in her vulnerability, is heartbreaking while Marinca is astounding; still, neither commands the screen quite like the bullying Ivanov, and once he’s gone the film flags. “Don’t put the fetus down the toilet, because it’ll clog it up,” he advises horrifically. “Whole or in pieces,” he adds, teasing up the vomit that’s already collected in the audience’s throats.
4 Weeks… spares us having to watch the passing of the fetus, as Marinca, whom Mungiu stays with, leaves the hotel room to attend her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday party. This trip to the see the charming bourgeoisie and listen to their trivial conversation is clever act of suspense building by Mungiu—placing a stationary camera across the table from Marinca, tightly packing her into the frame, and not moving it for what seems like forever—not to mention a necessary respite from the horrors just endured. It might even be a bit of comic relief, if we weren’t already so upset and in no laughing mood. In an act of clemency, the film’s harrowing-ness peters out after the first hour, despite some graphic images and striking sequences to follow; by that point, the audience has been inured to the film’s horrors—the abject misery of the hotel scene can’t be topped (spoiler), even by an extended, full-on shot (no mere glimpse) of the lifeless fetus or the tossing of it down a garbage chute. (end spoiler)
For American audiences, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days addresses the abortion issue with a measure of neutrality, without partisan determination anyway; abortion is terrible, the film evenly shows, but it’s especially terrible, and gruesome, when it’s illegal and performed in backrooms. It serves as a persuasive lesson: make something illegal, and a black market will simply supply it—candy, cigarettes or abortions. Making abortion illegal only makes a bad situation that much worse.