Planned Parenthood in Bucharest
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is excruciating, ugly and very, very foreign. Sounds like the ideal candidate for the Palme d'Or.
This Romanian abortion drama did win that top prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and also arrives with the curious distinction of being a 2008 film stamped as the best film of 2007 by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, who said he couldn't wait for this year to praise it.
4 Months is far from entertaining - the all-pervasive sickliness and corruption of the Romanian state in 1987 is literalized in the mangy, bleary look of Cristian Mungiu's film, with its jagged camera movements and dishwater colors. But it's a skillfully realized emotional thriller about a college student and her roommate, who descend into an increasingly clammy and finally terrifying attempt to secure a black market abortion.
At the outset, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) seem to be preparing for an ordinary weekend trip. The underground economy is a routine fact. Even Tic Tacs can be secured only by dealing with a trader who operates in their dorm.
We gradually come to realize that the purpose of the excursion is an abortion for Gabita, with Otilia aiding with arrangements. In agonizing long takes, infection seems to spread beneath the surface of the film. First Otilia goes to talk to a boyfriend, who insists she drop by his mother's house to say hello later. She has more important things in mind, but agrees.
Then Otilia turns up at a hotel where she has reserved a room for herself and her friend. The bored clerk has lost the reservation and shrugs off Otilia's pleas in the immortal manner of bureaucrats everywhere, but with an added Communist Bloc undercurrent of officially-sanctioned hopelessness.
Otilia is used to this kind of bland distinterest, and thanks to Mungiu's bleak atmosphere, so are we. Each successive scene plays out like a tumbler clicking into place as the girls seem to be getting locked into a gruesome fate. Yet things will get much worse. There will be more clerks - one of them, in another hotel, keeps telling Otilia there are no rooms available without ever looking her in the eye, then relents when she smells a bribe. One of her hands darts out as quick as a cobra to snag a pack of Kent cigarettes that seals the deal.
Worse will be the abortionist himself, who may or may not even know the basics of his profession. He does know enough to ask how far along Gabita is. She says two months, and after some cross-examining admits it might be closer to three. The title of the film is never stated; like much about the period, it doesn't have to be.
Nor does the film need thriller music or flashy editing during its most gripping and agonizing sequence - when Gabita is left alone, literally locked in her hotel room with her life in the balance while Otilia departs to make good on that promise to visit with her boyfriend's family. She finds herself caught in a dinner party that looks like it's going to take hours, and every second that ticks by is, in a silent, psychological way, the indie-movie equivalent of a lit fuse to a pile of TNT. The barely audible sound of a phone ringing in the background at the party is as exciting as this movie gets, but if you're paying attention it will jolt you.
The bleak Romanian sense of humor - 2006's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" is a Kafkaesque farce whose title does not lie, and it's almost as miserable an experience for the audience as it is for its doomed hero- is just beginning to emerge in cinema. Bland statements, repeated, take on an extra dimension of menace or satire; the pointlessness of long scenes is itself the point; and the implicit guarantees to the audience are the opposite of what you expect from a Hollywood film. If any story results in anything less than catastrophe, you'll be relieved, and that must what living in Communist Romania was like.
Kyle Smith is a film critic for the the New York Post. His website is at www.kylesmithonline.com