Don't Miss The Latest Cinematic Revelation From This Former Eastern Bloc Country
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Sometimes a new wave in national cinema crashes on our theater shores all at once. Such is the case with Romania, responsible for some of the best movies of the past few years in 2005's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 2006's 12:08 Bucharest. This week comes writer/director Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the most affecting of the three. And while the movies are different from each other in tone and subject matter, all attempt to address the causes and consequences of Romania's bloody separation from communism and the regime of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, which took place when the directors of these movies were in their teens or early 20s.
Four Months begins in a college dormitory that could easily be confused with a hospital or prison. As is the case in any dorm, contraband is available for a price, although here it's Kool cigarettes and beauty products, not alcohol and pot, that turn students into lawbreakers. But the real ban is unspoken, and wouldn't be noticed if it weren't for the movie's title.
Gabriela Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) is pregnant--how far along is spelled out in the title--and wants an abortion, which is illegal due to the state's fanatical obsession with population growth. Having successfully evaded an official who checks the women's menstrual cycles to ensure that those who are pregnant stay so, Dragut arranges to have an abortion performed by a man who did the same for a friend of hers. Her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) agrees to help her rent a hotel room and be with her during the procedure. Like Mr. Lazarescu, which tells the story of a sick man navigating the health-care system to get assistance, and 12:08, which features a group of men replaying the events of the 1989 revolution on a local television show, 4 Months's narrative is driven by the resolution of a central problem. But these movies are more than slice-of-life narratives because the problems they address are central to Romanians still grappling with a post-1989 world.
Four Months is about abortion, not sex, and it doesn't waste time establishing how and why Dragut became pregnant, although her timidity throughout suggests that she may have been raped. Set in 1987, when abortion was illegal for Romanian women unless they had already given birth to five children, 4 Months' women are unable to criticize their country openly for fear of being accused of being criminals themselves.
But while the movie's interest in abortion policy is largely documentary, the movie lodges a larger charge against Romanian society under Ceausescu. At a critical moment, Otilia leaves Dragut to attend a birthday party for her boyfriend's mother. The party doesn't contribute to the story's narrative, which takes place over the course of a single day, but it allows us to see how even the Romanian elite have been corrupted by a system that punishes dissent. Otilia is mercilessly mocked for attending college in order to give her a chance to do something other than return to the countryside to have children. Four Months isn't a primer on the negative effects of anti-abortion laws as much as it is an argument against a society that forces its members to live in fear of the government.
In the United States, 4 Months has been received as a welcome response to the lighthearted unplanned-pregnancy comedies of the past year--Juno, Knocked Up, and Waitress. It does portray the process of getting an abortion in a place where it is forbidden by law, as opposed to Hollywood, where it's only frowned upon. But it's difficult to imagine someone emerging from 4 Months with a changed mind about abortion laws, despite its haunting images.
Instead, the movie sticks with you for much of the same reasons Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08 do. Repressive laws pervert and destroy the trust and goodwill that make societies function. In 4 Months, you see how people manage to care for each other under such brutal circumstances but, even still, how easy it is for people just to look the other way. The final action of the movie doesn't come as a surprise, but it's chilling all the same. As is the case with everything else that takes place, we know what's going to happen at the end long before it's realized. But this foreshadowing doesn't make it any easier to come to terms with a story that shows what a society that truly disregards human life feels like.