4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days


I’m very late to the
party, but I finally saw Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days over the
weekend. This harrowing film casts an unblinking eye on women living in
collective peril in Ceausescu’s Romania during the 1980s. The film won the
Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, a celebrated Oscar snub, and
acclaim from critics around the world. So one would think that there’s no way a
Communist Bloc film about abortion could be as good as everyone says it is.
Well, it is.

Mungiu opens with a
closeup of two goldfish bumping up against the sides of a tank. Mungiu’s first
stab at metaphor doesn’t look promising until you realize that the tank is
shaped exactly like a film screen. It’s even flat. He pulls back to reveal a
crowded college dorm room, a chaotic space of primitive socialism. Everything
is too close together: the bed, the eating table, the hotplate. Some obscure
taboo is being violated. A wan beauty steps into the frame to stir a pot on the
hot plate, and she speaks with her roommate who is off frame. This is a world
that’s been lived in for too long. The woman at the hot plate, Gabita, sits on
the bed and casually spoons some red goo from the pot and slaps it on her shin;
she’s waxing her legs, and still Mungiu’s camera rolls on, never pausing to
comment or interrupting to edit.

The first edit occurs several minutes into the
film when the roommate Otilia, a fearless blond, walks down the hallway to the
communal bathroom, Mungiu’s camera trailing along in a tracking shot in the
style of Alan Clarke. In this feminine space, it’s as if one body is under
constant maintenance. One body, however, has been violated: Gabita is pregnant–4 months, 3 weeks, and 2
days, to be exact–and she’s just now getting around to aborting the baby.

Otilia has to
venture outside the rickety warmth of the dorm into a world heavy with
boundaries. Each space is cramped and dingy in the standard Iron Curtain style,
but Mungiu’s long duration shots and inflexible framing have the surprising
effect of adding even more tension to the scenes. Every new space presents
Otilia with a new set of challenges, most often functionaries standing behind
granite counters and fussing over IDs. The officials smack their lips and cough on the dust that’s been
settling since Kafka was alive. Their clothing creaks like insect exoskeletons.
Otilia, meanwhile, is eerily silent except when she speaks. She doesn’t even

Oleg Mutu’s
cinematography is all blue and brown, perfectly capturing the decayed afterlife
of a doomed empire. He and Mungiu create a city with many rules but no crowds. At nightfall,
Mutu’s night-for-night shots plunge the city into blackness inhabited by a few
ghostly souls. It’s in this complete darkness that Otilia must complete her
final, terrible errand.

But when she’s done another surprise awaits us: in a society where nothing seems to work right,
everything works out in the end, for the time being, anyway. Mungiu ends the film with a medium shot of the
roommates sitting in a restaurant in a shot structured in much the same way as
the opening shot. The women have survived their harrowing ordeal. Mungiu even
inserts a small joke to celebrate their success. But we’ve already seen Mungiu
will violate the 180 degree rule of the classical cinema when it suits his purposes, so we can never be sure we’re seeing everything, even in a long-duration shot. We seem to be looking
through a fourth wall into the booth. Then an obscure sound comes from behind
the camera and the women turn in our direction. There’s no wall there at all,
and, metaphorically, no floor beneath them, so they could continue falling



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