Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'or winner "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" is as good as you've heard -- ravaging, provocative, deeply moving, and expertly crafted -- but it may not be what you expect. Billed by many as the "Romanian abortion movie" (something akin to labeling "There Will Be Blood" the "American oil movie"), "4 Months" isn't simply about abortion, even if the film uses it as its structuring conceit. So yes, Mungiu's film concerns two friends, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), who attempt to procure an illegal abortion for the latter in the waning days of the Ceausescu regime, but it is not an "abortion movie" in the vein of Mike Leigh's excellent "Vera Drake" or Alexander Payne's "Citizen Ruth." Otilia -- and not Gabita -- occupies the film's narrative and moral center, and through this character, magnificently rendered by Marinca and insistently studied by Mungiu's handheld camera, "4 Months" becomes something far more expansive than a simple plot description could imply -- a tense, riveting thriller (of a sort) that subtly evokes the experiences of women in a society that fiercely regulates their lives and bodies, often reducing them to commodities to be bought, sold, and bartered, no different at the extreme from the Kent cigarettes and orange Tic Tacs traded on the Bucharest black market.
The film opens on a shot of a clock, its incessant ticking providing an ominous auditory thrust into the narrative. Told in long, single takes (though not, strictly speaking, in real time), and set within a 24-hour period, "4 Months" is the sort of movie that becomes increasingly unnerving with each passing moment, as it builds a cumulative sense of dread. In terms of pure plot, we actually see very little happen over the course of the movie's two hours. Otilia goes to check into the hotel room Gabita reserved, only to discover there is no reservation; she finds another hotel and gets a room; she meets up with Bebe (the chilling Vlad Ivanov, a deserving Los Angeles Film Critics Association winner for Best Supporting Actor), the man Gabita's hired to perform her abortion; and then, well, the less said the better. Mungiu's film so closely attaches itself to Otilia's point-of-view that it often veers away from the primary narrative thread of Gabita's abortion for long stretches of time, most notably in a brilliant sequence in which Otilia leaves Gabita to attend a birthday dinner for her boyfriend's mother. As Otilia becomes increasingly implicated in and affected by her friend's black-market abortion, her psychological devastation makes palpable a central drama that is otherwise depicted mostly through implication and suggestion.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, offscreen space plays an essential role in the film's construction. Cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who shot Cristi Puiu's also great Romanian export "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" in a more fluid, documentary style, here works with a mostly fixed camera; the unconventional framing makes us aware of a larger environment and context to which the camera denies immediate access. In one of the film's most extraordinary sequences (like many, captured in a single shot), Otilia sits in profile interrogating Gabita, who lies motionless, mid-procedure. We sympathize with Otilia's confusion and resentment, even as we are made acutely aware of Gabita being denied a reaction shot, reduced to a disembodied voice at a moment that is all about her physicality and her body.
The near-constant tension between narrative and image, between what we expect to see and what we are actually shown, makes Mungiu's controversial, climactic insert shot, which I won't reveal here, all the more jolting and essential. For all the talk about abortion throughout, Mungiu's camera avoids and elides it. But implication and suggestion are only tenable to a point. In choosing to physicalize the abortion when and how he does, Mungiu acknowledges the gravity of the situation he has dramatized and opens it to deeper meanings, all while maintaining his steadfast focus on character. How remarkable, that a film tackling such weighty issues should do so with such integrity and still manage to be so sensitive, so moving, and so human.
[Chris Wisniewski is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a regular contributor to Publishers Weekly, and manager of education programs at the Museum of the Moving Image.]