By the final stretch of award season, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men had become critical front runners, at least in the U.S. But there was a time, earlier on, when Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s quietly unsettling abortion drama was the film to beat. It earned two European Film Awards. It took the Best Film honors at the San Sebastian Film Festival and the Hollywood Film Festival. In May, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d’Or, the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, over the Coen brothers’ entry.
The picture is set in 1987, in the waning days of communist rule under the dictator Ceausescu, whose repressive regime left the country in ruins. We’re introduced to a pair of college students who share a room in a seedy, rundown dorm. The school, though, is no seedier or rundown than the city surrounding it. Rust seems to be the only thing holding cars together. Color appears to have been outlawed. Society has for all practical purposes broken down, and black markets have sprung up to meet the most ordinary of needs.
The roommates are Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), and they are an odd couple. Otilia is outgoing, no-nonsense and resourceful. Gabita, by contrast, is scatterbrained and accustomed to letting others clean up her messes. She is also pregnant.
If Gabita were an attractive young woman faced with the same problem in an American movie, she might find true love with the father, raise the child with a knight in shining armor, or devote herself to finding her baby a loving home. She is not in an American movie, however. She is in a film depicting the stark realities of life in a crumbling Eastern bloc country, and she can barely take care of herself. Life is not going to be affirmed. It is going to be terminated.
Abortions were illegal in Romania at the time — which didn’t stop half a million women from dying as a result of botched procedures during the 23 years of Ceausescu’s rule. Like everything from Kents to Tic Tacs, they were available for a price if one knew where to go. Gabita leaves it to her friend to make most of the arrangements and bungles the one responsibility she takes on herself. Though the abortionist she has contacted by phone specifies two hotels where it’s safe to conduct their transaction, she never gets around to making the reservation. As a result, both places are full when the fateful day arrives, and Otilia is forced to secure a room in a third, a wrinkle in the plan that does not please Mr. Bebe.
And, believe me, you don’t want to get on Mr. Bebe’s bad side. As played by Vlad Ivanov, the character ranks alongside No Country’s Anton Chigurh as one of 2007’s most fascinating screen creations. In the film’s central sequence, he dispenses advice and instructions with calm professionalism. And then dispenses with professionalism. Almost as an afterthought, he reminds the two women that his payment plan does not involve cash, a minor detail Gabita has neglected to share with her roommate. When Otilia offers ever larger sums, he reacts with sudden violence. The scene that follows is one you will not shake off easily.
This is a tale of friendship, corruption, betrayal and desperation, masterfully told with an unflinching commitment to realism — there’s not an ounce of filmmaking flash. All three leads give remarkable performances, and Mungiu’s script is as brilliantly minimalist as his direction. He’s a master of employing long silences to heighten suspense, for example — a sort of Alfred-Hitchcock-meets-Harold-Pinter approach — and his ear for dialogue is as good as anyone’s. You owe it to yourself to see this. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a harrowing and haunting piece of filmmaking. It may not have been remembered at Oscar time, but it’s cinema you won’t soon forget.