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In 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, a young woman is pregnant, but she can’t go searching for a solution in the Penny Saver. There are no supportive parents, cute singalongs, or OMG! banter between her and her best friend. In other words, Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s second feature is the anti-Juno, a bleak portrait of a world in which women don’t legally have the right to choose but often feel forced to anyway.
Set in 1987 Communist Romania, the story focuses not on expectant college student Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) but on her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca). The pair are getting ready for a short trip; while Gabita stays in their room, packing and worrying about whether she should bring her notes, Otilia makes businesslike rounds throughout the dorm and into town, trying to secure black-market cigarettes, some cash, Gabita’s lent-out hairdryer, and a hotel room. The last proves particularly difficult, as their hotel of choice claims not to have their reservation and a convention has the area’s rooms booked. But Gabita’s appointment with Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) is today, so in desperation Otilia reserves a much more expensive room in the kind of place where, she’ll unnervingly discover, the staff keeps a vigilant eye on who’s coming and going.
Mungiu follows Otilia with long tracking shots—in fact, much of the film consists of a single shot per scene—letting the audience feel the exhaustion of her errand-running and the trivial but constant battles of a bad day: For instance, she can’t find anybody who has her brand of smokes. Her boyfriend, Adi (Alex Potocean), lends her money but expects her at his mother’s birthday party that night, not accepting her excuse that she has something important to do. The clerk at the first hotel is rude and condescending, questioning why Gabita made her reservation over the phone and implying that the conversation never happened. Getting a room at the other place offers only brief relief, as Otilia still has to meet up with Bebe, an occasion that unveils a whole new set of problems. And, of course, there’s the abortion itself.
4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007, and it’s tonally reminiscent of another film that premiered at the festival last year, No Country for Old Men. The anguish in both movies is unrelenting and packaged in quietude: There’s no music in 4 Months, only the ambient noise of Otilia shuffling through busy urban streets during the day (or, more disconcerting, deserted ones later that night) and the silences that occur when talk is unscripted or situations are grim. Of course, this dialogue is scripted, however, and it’s a testament to the brilliance of Mungiu’s writing and the actors’ performances that the conversations feel more natural than anything captured on a reality show. The characters’ frankness ratchets up the tension—Otilia is a martyr to her friend and boyfriend in her actions but blunt whenever she’s unhappy about their behavior; Gabita tells Bebe a host of lies. (The biggest whopper is that she’s only two months along; the film’s title gives the accurate duration of her pregnancy.) She comes clean about her falsehoods one by one, and Bebe himself, far from being a soothing Vera Drake, is explicit about the process, the pain, the blood, and what to do with the fetus once Gabita “gets rid of it.”
Rarely does anyone yell, even though nearly everything that could go wrong does. Two scenes are unforgettably intense: In the first, Bebe, Gabita, and Otilia negotiate in the hotel room, with Bebe getting increasingly exasperated as he discovers how many of his original terms the childlike Gabita ignored, addressing her as “young lady” and eventually, skin-crawlingly, indicating that they’d need to offer him more than money for him to risk the jail sentence he could face for performing the deed.
The second is a bravura dinner sequence that puts Mungiu on par with Spielberg for wrenching emotion out of a meal, as Otilia suffers the offhand grilling and general prattling of the guests at Adi’s mother’s celebration while worrying about having left Gabita alone. The director, aided by cinematographer Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), isn’t shy about fixing his camera wherever it’s most uncomfortable—and that includes a graphic shot of the fetus. It’s not quick.
We don’t know much about these women outside of Mungiu’s intimate day-in-the-life snapshot, including why Gabita chose to abort or who the father is. But their characters are strong regardless, with their friendship belying very different personalities in the face of crisis. Vasiliu’s Gabita is nearly unbearably soft-spoken, meek, and somewhat naive, but the actress shows moments of strength, too—keeping quiet can be an act of courage as well as one of fear—and her performance prevents you from losing respect for the girl or wondering why on earth Otilia goes to the lengths she does to help her friend. Marinca, though, recently seen in a bit part in Francis Ford Coppola’s Youth Without Youth, is the film’s obvious star. Her Otilia is terrifically complex, a realistic mix of stereotypically masculine and feminine traits—aggressive but compassionate, no-nonsense but not immune to getting emotional during times of stress. Marinca carries 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, appearing in nearly every scene, the narrative’s intensity reflected in her expressions. The performance is as raw and honest as the film itself.