While everyone else coos over the pregnancy romances of “Knocked Up” and “Juno,” I urge you to take a look at “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” a movie that makes today’s pregnancy chic feel crass.
There is some speculation that despite rave reviews from critics, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days was overlooked for an Oscar nomination because of it’s immediate subject, abortion. If this is true, the academy missed the point. As director Christian Mungiu has said in multiple interviews, the film isn’t only about abortion — it’s about totalitarianism. Yes, the movie centers around one of the primary character’s need for an abortion, but the bulk of the film is about the humiliating negotiations and transactions that the characters must endure, and the fear, bitterness, and self-interest that becomes a part of the average person’s landscape in a totalitarian state.
The film is set in Communist Romania in 1987, among the final years of the Nicolae Ceauşescu era dubbed “The Golden Age” in propaganda. The “golden age” moniker was part of the inspiration for the film, according to Mungiu, because of the gap between the reality and the propaganda — in addition to hearing the story from “someone he knows” but whose identity he won’t reveal. History tells us that as his dictatorship went on, Ceauşescu became more and more disconnected from reality — the longer the lines at the food stores, the more likely he was to get on tv and proclaim the “high living standard” achieved under his rule. Mungiu capitalizes on this by showing the dark rooms and cramped spaces, and the long negotiations the main characters must go through in order to get one cigarette, board a bus, or get a hotel room.
The two main characters are young students, Otilia and Gabita. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is a beautiful young woman who is timid and lies to herself and others in order to avoid the fact that she is pregnant and terminate the pregnancy as quickly and cluelessly as possible. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is her competent roommate who has agreed to help Gabita secure the illegal abortion. Otilia, as the chief protagonist of the film, acts the part superbly. If this story were told by an American director there would be great swells of music, and keening and crying by the main actors, yet a great part of the horror in the film are the stone faces of the actresses acting stoically in unimaginable circumstances. With no score, no fancy sets, no clever editing, no close up shots of delicately weeping heroines, there isn’t a hint of the melodrama that American audiences expect. In fact, most of the scenes are long, uncut shots, some as long as ten minutes without a cut, allowing the viewer to see and internalize the bleak environment and the characters’ desperation.
The illegal abortionist (for lack of a just term) is a new kind of cinematic monster. Rather than painting him as a misogynist abuser he comes off like every other authority in the film, hopelessly self-interested to the point where he harms those he is supposed to help. His cruelty is somewhere between an understandable defensiveness — considering the penalties as an abortion doctor in a 1980s communist dictatorship — and an outright supremacist, wielding power over the women because, like everyone else in the dictatorship, he has none otherwise. Without giving spoilers, this leads to what would usually be the horrific apex of the film, but because of the subject’s bleakness, is just another gross part of doing business on the black market.
For American viewers, this offers more than a snapshot of life in Romania during darker days, it also paints a clear picture why the global mistreatment of women is such a terrible injustice. Parallels can be drawn to American history pre-Roe, and professed ideals of the American evangelical right wing, but not without spoilers.
Originally posted on FAUXREALTHO on 2.1.2008.