A remarkable new generation of filmmakers has erupted out of post-communist Romania in the last few years. Cristian Mungiu’s excellent 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the latest film to achieve critical success, deservedly winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year.
Romania had one of the Eastern Bloc’s most vicious and repressive regimes under the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Abortion was criminalised in 1966, forcing the practice underground. Mungiu’s film, the first in a series that he’s planning about the legacy of communism in Romania, takes place over the course of one day in 1986. A young student, Gabita, foolishly having left an unwanted pregnancy too late, enlists her friend Otilia’s help to get her through the backstreet abortion that she’s arranged with an unknown ‘doctor’, Mr Bebe. The faux-naíÂ¯ve Gabita (whose frailty is perfectly captured by Laura Vasiliu) is incapable of being honest with herself, and has deceived both the doctor and Otilia, who finds herself entangled in a web of lies. But it’s really Otilia, in a stand-out performance by Anamaria Marinca, who drives the film forward.
The girls, living together in a dorm full of fellow students, barter with each other for black market items. Otilia tries to hunt down a pack of cigarettes, hoping they’ll help her bribe hotel officials when she tries to book a room where Gabita can have the abortion. The hotels themselves are virtually impenetrable fortresses, reminding us of the police state that dominates the fringes of the film. The girls are unprepared for their eventual encounter with Bebe; he is both brutal and brutalised by the acts he is forced to perform. Furious at Gabita for lying about her pregnancy, he exacts a cruel, calculating revenge on the two powerless friends.
4 Months aesthetically captures the bleakness of communist Romania in the 80s, with its sterile dorms, soulless hotels and cement-lined streets. The film is composed of brilliantly choreographed long takes that demand utter commitment from the actors, wresting tortured, powerful performances out of each of them. The naturalistic camerawork creates an acute awareness of a dangerous world lingering just outside the frame, making the film an almost edge-of-the-seat psychological thriller. Every element of the film, from the acting to Oleg Mutu’s enthralling cinematography, comes together to create a powerful, coherent whole.
The film is something of a blank canvas, allowing the audience to project its own judgements and values on an all-too-familiar tragedy. Crucially, it’s not merely a film about abortion, but rather the degradation that Romanians suffered at the hands of a totalitarian dictator. Otilia desperately tries to hold on to her dignity in the face of the emotional and physical brutality that Bebe, and the regime, inflict on her and Gabita. The abortion itself is merely a metaphor for the cruelties unleashed on the country.
This wave of young filmmakers are the first to have grown up virtually free from communism. They seem to share a powerful sense of duty to reflect on their history, on the sacrifices made by their parents and grandparents. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a suspenseful, riveting tribute to the character and integrity of people like Otilia: she is the strong, quietly defiant young woman out on the streets of Bucharest in 1989 facing down the tanks, calling for Ceausescu’s overthrow.