11. Romania — 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
2007, directed by Cristian Mungiu
Set in the waning years of totalitarian communist Romania, two college roommates try to get an illegal “back-alley” abortion. 4 Months is an emotionally affecting film, the subject matter of which may not make it easy to watch. It is still a pleasurable experience because of excellent performances all around, anchored by the wonderful Anamaria Marinca as Otilia, who plays the protagonist. She is fierce, resourceful, and resilient, carefully navigating a system built against her. She and her pregnant friend nearly insurmountable obstacles of an authoritarian state, bureaucracy, sexism, people who deliberately act badly, and people who are too apathetic or privileged to care. On top of that, she has to combat the self-destructive tendencies of her friend who is seeking the abortion. The pregnant girl Gabriela is a neurotic, unreliable mess, understandably so, and the viewer remains in constant fear for her life or death decisions. I also want to laud a wicked supporting performance by the actor who plays the manipulative abortionist.
The abortion plot and female friendship focus remind me of Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always. In that outstanding 2020 film, two teenage cousins travel from their rural Pennsylvania home to New York City for one of them to get an abortion. Ms. Hittman’s film is a more tender and touching story of friendship and support, but part of the reason for that is because the abortion procedure is legal and thus typically medically safe for the women. Not the case for the women in 4 Months. As such, these two films are interesting to consider in tandem. The title similarities alone make it hard to believe that Ms. Hittman was not influenced by Mr. Mungiu’s film.
4 Months is not only a work of searing social commentary, but is masterfully crafted and styled by director-writer Cristian Mungiu. With a static, deliberate camera and extremely long shots, the events appear to play out in real time. Mr. Mungiu packs each mise en scène with a lot happening in the foreground and the background, which rewards multiple viewings. He seems to relish making the camera linger, especially when the viewer wants to look away. The entire film takes place on the day of the planned abortion. The framing reminds me of Agnes Varda’s seminal French New Wave film, Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962), which follows a young woman in real time (from 5 to 7 o’clock) awaiting medical results to learn whether she has cancer. However, instead of deep thoughts about life and mortality in beautiful 1960s Paris, Mr. Mungiu depicts late 1980s Romania as staid, oppressive, impoverished, and generally depressing. I’ve seen two films by Mr. Mungiu, who is renowned within the New Romanian Cinema movement. Beyond the Hills (2012) is a story of two female friends oppressed by a different institution, the Romanian Orthodox Church specifically and religion in general. Both his films, set in different times, depict what can best be described as gritty realism. While his films are undeniably thought-provoking and artful, I wonder how Romanians today appreciate such depiction of their society.
Random other thoughts:
A critic writing for the Criterion Collection highlighted as a pivotal scene near the middle of the film, the bourgeois dinner party, through which Otilia is forced to endure with her boyfriend’s family. The article is an excellent read. I haven’t discussed the actual movie format too often through this project, but Criterion’s products are always excellent and do justice to the understanding, appreciation, and preservation of cinematic art.
The Romanian language struck me as surprisingly like Italian, not like a Slavic language that I was expecting. After the film, I learned that Romanian is actually a Romance language, like Italian, Spanish, or French, and it’s the only Romance language in Eastern Europe.
I saw 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days on DVD from the Arlington Public Library. You can find it on streaming platforms.
This is #11 in my World Tour of Cinema project. Read my introductory post here.