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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Fear, despair, determination

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As a clock ticks off the seconds, the camera stares as a pair of college roommates, Gabita and Otilia, engage in an apparently ordinary conversation. The camera slowly pulls back to reveal a narrow, cramped dorm room at the opening of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and follows Otilia down a dismal hallway to a communal washroom, then to the dorm room of a student running a thriving black market in cigarettes and into another room where she buys hand cream from girls operating a cosmetics bazaar.

It’s Romania in 1987, two years before a violent uprising toppled the despotic Nicolae Ceausescu and his Communist regime. Despite the scarcity of consumer goods, many aspects of Gabita and Otilia’s routine appear similar to college life elsewhere. Grades, finals and vacations are topics of discussion on the way to class, not life under the worn-down heal of a scuffed and cracking police state. Director Cristian Mungiu allows 4 Months to proceed at the pedestrian tempo of the everyday, producing an illusion that the film transpires almost in real time. The Cannes award-winner is an immersion into life’s gritty texture in what turned out to be the last years of the Communist Bloc.

There are few clues of what’s going on during the first half-hour. Otilia is noncommittal about dinner with her boyfriend’s parents that night because she’s keeping a secret. She is not off to buy illicit cigarettes, but to find an abortionist for her frightened roommate. Gabita is carrying an unwanted child in a country where abortion is neither safe nor legal. Many thousands of women are said to have died from botched abortions in Communist Romania, where condoms were apparently scarcer than American tobacco. Mother and abortionist could spend years in prison if caught.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a grim, unflinching examination of the ends to which desperation can lead. Laura Vasiliu as the downcast, trembling Gabita and Anamaria Marinca as the resilient, determined Otilia endow their characters with humanity unadulterated by the false notes and rank emotionalism of Hollywood. Gabita and Otilia appear as full-fledged people, not stick figures from a screenwriter’s drawing board. The panic and determination in their eyes, the unrelenting sadness and regret, show more than any ream of dialogue could ever say.

Even the supporting characters, including the abortionist, reverberate with reality. He is alternately professional and crass, a careful practitioner and a jerk driving a hard bargain over the price. On the way to the hotel room where the abortion will take place, he stops at his mother’s, chiding her to go inside before she catches a chill.

Mungiu’s film is also a painstaking recreation of its time and place in the paint-peeled, rusted hulk of failed Communist programs. The lobby of the hotel resembles an Edward Hopper interior, the flickering light bulbs adding a hint of David Lynch. Romania’s strained social milieu comes into focus during a brilliant scene around the dinner table in the elegant apartment of Otilia’s boyfriend’s parents. Filmed in a long, unblinking take, Otilia’s face is mutely mortified in the midst of an animated discussion between older dinner guests who lament the “easier” time of the younger generation, cast sly aspersions against the regime and, from their position of relative privilege, disparage the lower class to which Otilia belongs in their ostensibly classless society.