Sitting in their shared university dormitory, a young student agrees to help her friend; "OK" she says, in an understated opening that perfectly captures the essence of Cristian Mungiu's quietly powerful 4 Luni, 3 Saptamini si 2 Zile (4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days). As we gradually learn, the agreement is to help her friend to get an abortion, and the ensuing drama is at once thoughtful, uncomfortable, harrowing, heartbreaking, political and personal. To me, this Romanian film is an example of cinema at its very best.
We follow students Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) over the course of one day in 1987 during Ceausescu's personal-Communist dictatorship, as Gabita prepares for and undergoes an illegal abortion. Throughout the unfolding drama, a constant, sullied greyness is all-pervading, infusing everything with a claustrophobic air. From the slushy streets to the institutional, industrial-style university buildings and utilitarian hotels, Mungiu evokes the Romania of the time as a ragged, tainted place.
The style is minimalist, complementing a naturalistic dialogue and tone. Characters speak from off-camera, or are partly in shot. There is frequent use of distance shots and long takes, such as the seemingly mundane opening sequence following Otilia around the dorm through corridors and shower blocks as she gathers information and goods in equal measure. The active Otilia, as Gabita's steadfast and pragmatic friend, is placed at the heart of the story, and it is through this decision that Mungiu generates much of the emotional power of the film. Skilfully subverting tired stereotypes of victimhood, it allows for a different treatment of a difficult subject matter, and places that experience in a wider political and historical context.
Romania's misnamed ‘orphans' - the thousands of abandoned children discovered by the world at the collapse of the Ceausescu regime - were the outward tragedy of the state's decades-long push for population growth, that outlawed contraception. International attention was focused on a "lost generation" of malnourished, abused, institutionalised children trapped in ill-equipped state orphanages captured in shocking news reports.
4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days tells the other side of that story. It is the first of a planned series titled "Tales from the Golden Age", designed to form "a subjective history of communism in Romania told through its urban legends", and it certainly succeeds in portraying the grim daily reality of life under an oppressive regime. With no direct political reference, I was still acutely aware of the overarching state presence throughout a tense 113 minutes. Mungiu's stated desire is to tell individual tales, "focused on personal options in a time of misfortunes that people had to live like normal times", and in this, he proves a master storyteller.
In Romania in1987 abortion was illegal, outlawed by the Communist state in 1966 and punishable by up to five years in prison for any doctors or nursing staff involved in performing the procedure or helping a woman to obtain one. Under a political system aggressively pursuing a population-growth programme, all issues surrounding reproductive rights were fraught. In addition to the ban, all childless women between the ages of 25 and 45 were forcedo attend a clinic each month for a pregnancy test by the so-called "menstrual police", and the legal age of marriage was lowered to 15. It is against this background that Gabita and Otilia embark on their journey, clearly a perilous one. The tension is cleverly built towards the eventual, correspondingly traumatic, encounter with the shadowy Mr Bebe (the excellent Vlad Ivanov) who performs a shockingly basic procedure. Otilia as the sympathetic heart of the film is sensible and street-smart. It is her journey, her personal decisions and experiences, which are documented in detail. We watch as she secures a hotel room, deals with hostile staff, negotiates with the cold and repulsive Mr Bebe, wrestles with papers and ID cards, and accompanies her friend throughout the ordeal. A strong theme of friendship is threaded throughout the narrative. Otilia risks everything for Gabita because in an uncertain world, it is the only thing she is sure of. "She would do the same for me", she explains in quiet resignation to her boyfriend when he is shocked at her risk-taking.
The overwhelmingly isolating impact of the piece comes at the point Otilia has to interact with others, visiting her boyfriend's home to celebrate his mother's birthday. One of the few times that the relentlessly austere atmosphere is allowed to drop, the family home is full of laughter, light, books and good food. Parents and friends joke together about mutual acquaintances, successes and careers. Yet Otilia sits sandwiched between guests, unable to speak or eat. As the conversation carries on around her, the camera remains fixed with her front and centre, and we know all her thoughts are with Gabita whom she has left alone in the hotel room. It is intensely poignant, and a powerful portrait of utter isolation.
An unforgiving world
As the day unravels, Mungiu reveals an unforgiving world with its own distinct set of corrupted, yet strictly defined, structures. Everything in this world is for sale; shampoo, soap and Kent cigarettes in the student dormitories or on the black market run out of the downtown hotel lobbies, and finally - somehow inevitably - the girls themselves. Mr Bebe's demands for payment in any form confirm the total corruption of society.
All this, though, happens very quietly and very naturally. There is virtually no music throughout, the silent backdrop broken only by the overheard sounds of a wedding party at the hotel. In some ways this reflects on the fragmentation of life under the regime. There could be hundreds, thousands of Otilias and Gabitas making similar choices, being exposed to the same inevitable brutalities and similarly enduring the ordeal in silence and secrecy.
Here again, the closing words of the film are revealing: "We will not speak of this again", Otilia tells Gabita. And they won't. That is of course Mungiu's job, to relate the stories of ordinary people living their lives in times of misfortune.
Mungiu's success proves him a master of his craft, underlined by the film's winning of the Palme D'Or at the 2007 Cannes film festival. The acting is superb, the restrained camerawork and naturalistic direction capture a real sense of time and place. And it does not flinch from the tough subject matter. Moreover, it deals with it in the context of a very specific set of circumstances which have informed national attitudes in a singular way. At the fall of the regime it was estimated that up to 500,000 women in Romania had died as a result of the ban on abortion on demand. The political motivations behind the ban also provoked an added significance; for some, it transformed abortion into an act of rebellion. In post-Communist Romania abortion was legalised, resulting in almost 1 million abortions in one year alone.
Rooted in a particular time and place that is alien to most, 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days manages to both evoke the horror of the era it depicts, and simultaneously provide evidence, in itself, of Romania's progress.
Perhaps due to the focus on children, the relative closeness to home, and my age at the time, the tragedy of Romania's unwanted children remains a strong personal memory, one of the first times my political consciousness had been stirred. Nearly twenty years later, the experience of that era has been transformed into art, and art at its very best, with the ability to provoke questions and understanding at a deeper level. Mungiu, and others, will tell us those everyday stories - if we are prepared to listen.