4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days

You might not have thought that a film about an illegal abortion in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania could rival a thriller for suspense, but Cristian Mungiu’s surprise Palme d’Or winner does exactly that. Set two years before the 1989 revolution, it is not so much about abortion itself as it is about the near-impossible choices that people have to make when living under any oppressive political system.

Two young women and an older man are in a hotel room. One of the girls, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), is pregnant and her best friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) has procured the services of an abortionist, the ironically named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Under Ceausescu’s anti-abortion laws, all three face long prison sentences if caught. Mr. Bebe has just discovered what the film’s title hints at: that Gabita’s pregnancy is far more advanced than she originally claimed. It’s now a more dangerous procedure, so he demands greater compensation from both girls—but not in the form of money. At this point, Gabita’s desperation and her irritating helplessness push Otilia into making an unexpected and extraordinary choice.

Unfortunately, this pivotal scene is also the weakest and the least authentic part of what otherwise constitutes an impressive exercise in cinematic realism. Nor does Otilia’s almost heroic gesture seem remotely compensated by Gabita’s mumbled “thank you” at the end of the film. Nonetheless, Mungiu is clearly a gifted filmmaker and the scene does at least serve as an emblem of the exploitation of women by men—a motif that recurs throughout the film in the form of Ceausescu’s original edict, Gabita’s unnamed and never-seen lover, Otilia’s insensitive boyfriend, Adi (Alex Potocean), and the men at Adi’s family gathering.

The director also demonstrates his skill for building tension without the need for dramatic spectacle. The only visually shocking moment in the film is when the camera focuses on the tiny fetus lying on the bathroom floor. The camera does not shy away from depicting stark, painful reality—including the actual process of abortion—but there is never the impression of exploitation or voyeurism. Like Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake (2004), Mungiu presents abortion as a social problem, but refuses to take sides.

This film is one of the most detailed and accurate representations I have seen of life under a totalitarian regime, where the black market and prostitution are a part of everyday life. The film’s look—dark interiors, dirty streets, narrow corridors—reflects the gloomy subject matter (Ceausescu was famously stingy with electricity), and cinematographer Oleg Mutu (who also shot Cristi Puiu’s acclaimed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) uses claustrophobic framing to reflect the characters’ states of mind. The use of deep focus, long takes, and mostly static but occasionally hand-held camera work, staples of the much admired post-Dogme tradition, are typical of current Romanian New Wave cinema, and allow life simply to reveal itself in front of the lens.

With a well-crafted script, carefully composed dialogues, and some great performances—especially by Anamaria Marinca as Otilia—4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is an engaging and rewarding watch.