Unsettling and unmissable
Set in Bucharest in 1987, writer/director Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days recounts two young women’s harrowing negotiation for and involvement in an illegal abortion. Outlawed in 1966, Romanian abortion penalties included heavy fines and imprisonment. The simple story, spanning only one day in the women’s lives, is one of the best evocations of life behind the Iron Curtain to date, conveying the contortive effects of a state system both physical and mental.
The film opens on a goldfish in a small tank. In the way of a phonograph needle dropping into the middle of a track, the first words are the off-screen voice of Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) — “Okay” — and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) — “Thanks” — as the camera pulls back to reveal their punitive, meagerly furnished dorm room. Preparing for the hotel overnight, pregnant Gabita sends Otilia to look for the right kind of soap and cigarettes, the kinds of goods only on offer through a dorm middleman, not at a store. Otilia then heads out to confirm in person the hotel reservation and to meet the contact, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Along the way, Mungiu deftly shows a world where hot water is an event, where the right brand of smokes may placate a moody warden, where common areas are virtually unlit, where an illegal abortion means bringing along your own plastic tablecloth to protect the bed against bloodstains, and where a black market of goods and favors thrives. Vast public spaces enclosed in vast architecture confirm the feeling of being watched, of being in the way of the buildings themselves. People queue at a shop that looks closed; road repair is unending, literally moving a pile from one area to another and back again; and such a dank nighttime darkness engulfs the city that the sporadic buses and scant streetlights merely glow. In essence, this is wartime living.
Every move Otilia makes outlines the time-erasing inefficiency that was life in Eastern Europe. Mungiu and superb cinematographer Oleg Mutu portray a society of paranoia-inducing public spaces and cramped private quarters. Nothing is what it seems, from the sepulchrally forsaken hotels allegedly booked solid, to the seemingly harmless lump in a ski sweater that is the quietly menacing Mr. Bebe. Both ursine and unpredictable, Bebe has a taciturn reasonableness far worse than any show of force or temper. In the one instance when he loses control, the deep-focus shot remains from Otilia’s perspective. She waits in his car while he crosses a tiny patch of greenery among Lego-style apartment buildings to where his mother perches on a bench, having disobeyed his orders to remain cooped up. Though in his later scenes with the young women he never displays more than a creepy reasonableness, the bullying of his mother is indelible.
The toll Bebe finally exacts from the young women is wartime currency, ancient as the Greeks and modern as Iraq. Slowing the film down to nearly real time in these scenes, Mungiu gives the viewer no relief from the humiliation to which both women are subjected and exacerbates the ordeal to which each bears witness. Though complicit, all three are also completely alone. As the characters move in and out of the long takes, their bodies are cut off by the very geometry of the frame, elegantly manifesting the distortions that define their lives in this state.
Once Bebe finishes, Otilia ducks out for a few hours, making good on a promise to her boyfriend to attend his mother’s birthday dinner party. The contrast from the stark hotel room to the cozily constricted middle-class apartment is almost a movie within the movie, as tense for the viewer as for Otilia herself. As she forces a happy face to please the smug potential in-laws and their friends, they clearly judge her as a bumpkin, a tech major from the sticks. Shot from the perspective of a guest at the table, the parents, friends, and boyfriend squeeze against Otilia like pigs at a trough. Their more-equal-than-others life includes plenty of delicacies and the comforting reassurance that even their professionally trained womenfolk still make potatoes in the special way their man appreciates. This vision of a possible future, a misshapen kind of success, is in some ways more horrifying than the illicit abortion.