The year is 1987, and the setting is Romania, a mere two years before Nicolae Ceauşescu's Communist regime will be overthrown. The opening moments of Cristi Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days capture an elusive, detail-lacking conversation between two college roommates: jittery Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and proactive Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), who together vaguely discuss the particulars and cost of some unspecified future event. Gabi is visibly fretful and unable to take action ("I can't handle the money part", she shudders), so the no-nonsense Otilia assumes the lion's share of the work. She then sets out on an excursion that will involve (unfruitful) attempts to book a hotel room, tracking down a mysterious stranger, and appeasing a demanding boyfriend. From the start, it is clear that Mungiu is interested in the bartering and exchange of commodities and capital between individuals. The two girls live in a co-ed college dormitory, but it seems more like an underground marketplace than anything else. Cramped bedrooms become sites of transaction as opposed to spaces dedicated to intense scholarship, some students even stocking highly sought-after British and American brand name goods (Nestle chocolate powder, for example.) And as Otilia ventures out into the streets of Bucharest, she is forced to play a public relations mastermind, making up seemingly credible stories when put on the spot, manipulating suspicious authority figures to aid her friend. It soon becomes clear that Mungiu is setting up the moment when this kind of business dealing will play out physically upon the (female) body.
*The rest of this review will contain spoilers, minor or major depending on what one has already read about the film*
Anyone who kept up with the Cannes Film Festival last spring (the film deservingly picked up the Palme d'Or) must already have read commentary that would suggest the film is ostensibly about illegal abortions. Indeed, it is Gabi that is unhappily expecting, and dutiful friend Otilia is exhausting the avenues for this procedure to take place, as soon and as inexpensively as possible. Yet the screenplay also pursues another complex politics about the human body - the demands placed upon it, the physical restriction of its movement and, of course, how it is exploited sexually. Otilia is soon unable to navigate the city as easily as she once did, and she is constantly asked questions about her whereabouts and motivations. Suspicious hotel clerks demand she submit her identification when venturing outside, so that her movement is always monitored. Even more troubling is the amount of pressure and responsibility placed upon Otilia by friends and others - Gabi expects her to make all the arrangements, while her boyfriend Adi insists she stop by his mother's birthday party later that night. Otilia is stretched thin between all these characters, all of them expecting something very specific from her.
The most powerful sequence in the film involves the arrival of the abortionist, who accompanies Otilia to the hotel room where Gabi is waiting. His name is Bebe (a frightful and commanding Vlad Ivanov), and he is not happy to learn that he has been misinformed regarding the specifics of the pregnancy (she is four months pregnant, not two, which is not a good thing.) This drastically changes the logistics and severity of the procedure, he argues, and proceeds to bully them into offering more than the agreed payment. She and Otilia uncomfortably listen on while he lectures them on the severity of the situation and what he perceives to be a lack of respect for his services. Otilia is needlessly apologetic, trying desperately to save the situation, but when she finally loses her patience and asserts herself, he lashes out - "Don't get snotty." The girls promise more cash to follow in a few days as compensation for the unexpected complications, but ultimately have to offer more than that. The girls do what they need to. The audience is mercifully spared any detailed visuals, but it is difficult to watch how he turns paternal and overly concerned following their intimate encounters. He proceeds to abort the fetus, and leaves the two girls in silence to consider what just transpired. When Gabi can only offer a weak "thanks", Otilia's stony reaction is devastating - "If you're going to lie, warn me." She further wonders: had she gone with the slightly more expensive female abortionist during the negotiation stages, would the same thing have happened?
Anamaria Marinca's performance as Otilia is a must-see; it's the kind of turn that rips a viewer's heart out without turning to victimhood histrionics. No matter how badly things spiral out of control, Otilia must forge onwards, and Marinca achieves that conflicted determination tinged with crippling fear. What was once a confident, shrewd personality is left shattered and disillusioned by the film's closing scene. There is one sizable scene - consisting of single straightforward shot by Mungiu - that is particularly lasting in my memory. Otilia has decided to attend Adi's mother's birthday dinner after all, and she joins the guests at the dinner table. However, only her physical body is present at his moment; her thoughts are clearly with the ailing Gabi and truly digesting the horror of what transpired earlier that afternoon. The rest of the cast members receive much less screen-time in comparison, but Laura Vasiliu's work as Gabi is equally memorable. The actor accomplishes the difficult job of making us care for the character despite her total ignorance, and her constant dependence on Otilia. Vlad Ivanov is appropriately complex as Mr. Bebe, able to come across as genuinely invested in the girls' situation despite his reprehensible methods of manipulating them for his gain. And Alexandru Potocean is quite captivating as Adi in his mere two scenes opposite Marinca, conveying impatience and exasperation without making the figure a villain (the stock jerk boyfriend.)
Mungiu's work as the film's screenwriter and director is without fault; he trusts his audience enough to let them work out lapses on their own. The first twenty minutes are utterly disorienting, offering few concrete details about what Otilia is organizing, but they are exciting for that very reason. There are only a few scripting choices that feel manufactured, in order to make Otilia's actions potentially life-threatening and even more difficult to accomplish (thereby making these scene more suspenseful and potentially gasp-worthy.) For example, it is a stretch to believe that her character would leave her identification behind carelessly, considering how vital it is for her clandestine tiptoeing. This conveniently allows the hotel's front desk personnel to berate her (once again). Or that the street-smart character would walk through poorly-lit alleyways following the day's ugly and traumatic events. In the end, however, these points perhaps seem inconsequential; they do not damage the film's (considerable) successes. Brimming over with sympathetic (but not saintly) characters and a demandingly entangled (but not overstuffed) narrative, Cristi Mungiu's acclaimed film is a rarity. B+