Brilliantly discomforting

Women and friendship under a tyrannical regime

By Roger Ebert on March 13, 2008

Gabita is perhaps the most clueless young woman to ever have the lead in a movie about her own pregnancy. Even if you think Juno was way too clever, two hours with Gabita will have you buying a ticket to Bucharest for Diablo Cody. This is a powerful film and a stark visual accomplishment, but no thanks to Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). The driving character is her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), who does all the heavy lifting.

The time is the late 1980s. Romania still cringes under the brainless rule of Ceausescu. In Cristian Mungui’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Gabita desires an abortion, which was then illegal, not for moral reasons, but because Ceausescu wanted more subjects to rule. She turns in desperation to her roommate, Otilia, who agrees to help her, and does. Helps her so much, indeed, she does everything but have the abortion herself. In a period of 24 hours, we follow the two friends in a journey of frustration, stupidity, duplicity, cruelty and desperation set against a background of a nation where if it weren’t for the black market there’d be no market at all.

For Gabita, the notion of taking responsibility for her own actions is completely unfamiliar. We wonder how she has survived to her current 20ish age in a society that obviously requires boldness, courage and improvisation. For starters, she convinces Otilia to raise money for the operation. Then she asks her to go first to meet the abortionist. Then she neglects to make a reservation at the hotel the abortionist specifies. That almost sinks the arrangement: The abortionist has experience suggesting that hotel will be a safe venue and suspects he may be set up for a police trap. His name, by the way, is Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), and no, “bebe” is apparently not Romanian for “baby,” but it looks suspicious to me.

Otilia is heroic in this context; she reminds me a little of the ambulance attendant in the 2005 Romanian film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, who drove a dying man around all night insisting on a hospital for him. Otilia grows exasperated with her selfish and self-obsessed friend, but she keeps on trying to help, even though she has problems of her own.

One of them is her boyfriend, Adi (Alex Potocean), who is himself so self-oriented that we wonder if Otilia is attracted to the type. Even though she tries to explain that she and Gabita have urgent personal business, he insists on Otilia coming to his house to meet his family that night. He turns it into a test of her love. People who do that are incapable of understanding that to compromise would be a proof of their own love.

The dinner party she arrives at would be a horror show even in a Mike Leigh display of social embarrassment. She’s jammed at a table with too many guests, too much smoking, too much drinking, and no one who pays her the slightest attention, and as the unmoving camera watches her, we wait for her to put a fork in somebody’s eye. When she gets away to make a phone call, Adi follows her and drags her into his room, and then Adi’s mother bursts in on them and we see who Adi learned possessiveness from.

When the friends finally find themselves in a hotel room with the abortionist, the result is as unpleasant, heartless and merciless as it could possibly be. I’ll let you discover for yourself. And finally there is a closing scene where Otilia and Gabita agree to never refer to this night again. Some critics have found the scene anticlimactic. I think it is inevitable. If I were Otilia, I would never even see Gabita again. I’d send over Adi to collect my clothes.

Filmmakers in countries of the former Soviet bloc have been using their new freedom to tell at last the stories they couldn’t tell then. The Lives of Others, for example, was about the East German secret police. And in Romania, the era has inspired a group of powerful films, including Mr. Lazarescu, and 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006) and 4 Months, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes 2007, upsetting a lot of American critics who admired it but liked No Country for Old Men more.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Four Stars

Stars: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu and Alex Potocean

Director: Cristian Mungiu

Rated: Not rated