In a key scene of Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Gabita Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) and her college roommate and friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) agree never again to discuss the horrific events of that day.
To draw a shroud of silence over certain overwhelming experiences, to treat them as unmentionable, is a natural impulse. By consigning them to silence, we confine certain situations to the past and allow ourselves to move on.
Yet such silence, whether personal or social, can also be a form of dishonesty, a tacit unwillingness to confront the implications of an unwanted truth. We avert our eyes, like urban pedestrians avoiding the gaze of a derelict on the sidewalk.
Like the previous Romanian export The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months compels us not to avert our eyes. Even though the actual events remain out of sight — apart from a single, indelible shot not unlike images seen in some types of pro-life materials — its confrontation of the unmentionable is no less devastating.
Points of contact between 4 Months and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu go further. Each film depicts events of a single day in Bucharest, filmed by director of photography Oleg Mutu with an eye to the dreariness of urban decay. Each is a bleak, quietly appalling chronicle of a nearly unnoticed tragedy that is also an atrocity — a slow-motion train wreck in an enervated and decaying urban world too far gone to care.
Both films involve a death and allude to a death in their titles, though the death is less the focus than the circumstances and transactions surrounding it. Indeed, the focus is not so on much the more directly affected party as on a sympathetic would-be advocate — in Lazarescu, a conscientious nurse; in 4 Months, a caring college roommate.
Still, the final minutes of both films are overshadowed by death, like a pall — except that there is no pall, literally or figuratively. Pleas for some measure of dignity for the victim are not realized, compounding the naked sense of loss.
The two deaths involve opposite stages in life and diametrically opposed crises. The earlier title refers to a terminally ill 63-year-old man whom an increasingly desperate nurse is trying to get admitted to a hospital. The later indicates the gestational age of the fetus whose procured termination involves Gabita and Otilia in even more desperate straits.
4 Months is set in 1987, in the last years of the communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu, during which abortion was illegal (and divorce discouraged) in an effort to promote population growth. Black-market forces dictate that, where demand is great enough, those willing to pay the price can find a potential supplier.
Like Lazarescu, 4 Months is deliberately mundane in its naturalism, with its blighted urban decline, low-key performances and exchanges that sound like snatches of conversation overheard in a corridor. Sequences are crafted with inconspicuous but exacting formal rigor, with each scene filmed without cuts in a single unbroken shot.
The effect is as close to “fly on the wall” filmmaking as movies can get, and embodies the humanistic perspective — apparently characteristic of the new Romanian cinema — that simply to relate the story of a significant human event, to tell the truth without gloss or commentary, has value in itself.
Dramatically, given the crucial event in 4 Months, this approach is fraught with difficulty. Although the film is dominated by circumstances surrounding an abortion, abortion itself must not dominate the film. Mungiu cannily bypasses arguments and talking points by relating the events of the crucial day, with the decision already made. But the enormity of abortion and the controversy around it threatens to overwhelm almost any other conceivable crisis.
Astonishingly, a ghastly twist midway through 4 Months, though organic to the story, succeeds in raising the stakes to a sickening level. The abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), is a repellently convincing monster, a remorseless victimizer whose crimes are all the more dreadful for the spark of humanity and even something like solicitude that he manifests in the very end.
It is fair to say that these sequences, and others that follow, throw into relief the terrible collateral of illegal backroom abortion. Pro-abortion viewers may be quick to point out all the suffering and risk that could have been avoided if abortion were legal.
Yet the pathos of 4 Months is not exhausted by the degrading and dangerous consequences of its black-market circumstances. There is a final moment of truth in which what had been a problem to be gotten rid at any cost of is given a face, and the human dimension of the proceedings is squarely confronted. At that point, it is felt to be no longer possible to treat the fetus as a piece of tissue, to be disposed of like so much waste. Or is it?
4 Months premiered last year at Cannes, where it won the festival’s top award, the Palm D’Or. It has received widespread critical acclaim both in the United States and abroad, and made a number of critical Top 10 lists for 2007.
Yet when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced this year’s Oscar nominees a week and a half ago, 4 Months wasn’t among the nominees for best foreign film. In fact, according to Hollywood insiders, it wasn’t even on the shortlist of nine films considered for nomination.
According to some Hollywood observers, part of the reason may be the film’s rigorous style, which might not have been to the nominating committee’s tastes. But it has also been argued that the omission owes to the film’s frank insistence on examining a subject that pro-choicers would rather cloak in rhetoric.
Among those outraged at the Academy snub was well-known film writer Jeffrey Wells, who describes himself as “pro-choice” but was deeply shaken by seeing 4 Months.
On his blog, he wrote about driving girlfriends to get abortions, and what an eye-opening experience the film was. Perhaps some members of the nominating committee may have had similar experiences.
Not everyone appreciates having their eyes opened — some prefer to avert their gaze.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and
chief critic of DecentFilms.com.