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January 31, 2008 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | January 31, 2008 |

It’s been almost two decades since Nicolae Ceauşescu was bloodily ousted from power after over 30 years of rule, but the icy grip with which he held Romania infects every frame of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, another impressive film at the crest of a flourishing cinematic wave from that country. For Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) the chief protagonist of Cristian Mungiu’s second feature, winner of the 2007 Palme D’Or, Ceauşescu’s menace lies not in broad, Stalinist gestures (political issues are scarcely mentioned here) but in the laconic malaise of a society reduced to fear and self-interest.

Otilia is a competent and unassuming college student who lives with one roommate, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), in one of those impossibly cold-looking concrete-linoleum dorms which frequent campuses and Eastern Bloc flats in general. The single, harrowing day the film encompasses is one of the humiliations, large and small, that Otilia has to endure from the people around her as she attempts to procure an abortion for her friend. Gabita isn’t a bad person, but impossibly naïve and self-centered, like many kids who leave for college, having all the auspices of adulthood but practically incapable of small responsibilities; she falters over what to do about her unwanted pregnancy, then leaves all the logistic difficulties up to Otilia, who has to scamper around town, deal with a botched hotel reservation, and then meet the abortionist. Otilia does these things not out of selflessness, but a shuddering sympathy; it could just as easily be her in this position.

Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), the abortionist, a paunchy brute in a fuzzy sweater, is a curious kind of monster. He hovers somewhere between cruel and an understandable defensiveness — abortions are illegal, after all, in 1987 Romania, but at this late stage (4 months … etc.) the stakes are even higher. Bebe risks a decade in prison for helping these girls, but part of him enjoys the powerful position he’s found himself; his harangues over every detail of the procedure betray a relish — he loves being a black-market hotshot, even if he has to exploit his customers (both fiscally and spiritually). It’s only after his work is complete that Bebe allows a glimpse of humanity to shine through; now that no one can likewise dominate him, he’s free to feel compassion.

The abortion itself is mercifully not shown (though the aftermath is), but some of the most horrifying moments of the film are found in the minutiae of what otherwise might be an ordinary day for Otilia. Every bossy clerk, every leering ticket-taker or passerby, takes on an uncomfortable menace. And the buildup to the procedure itself is agonizing, as Gabi and Otilia debate with a mordant bully they have no choice but to trust over an illegal, illicit, and potentially fatal medical process. Even as a male, to whom the physical specificities of the act were alien, I was scared shitless. I can only imagine how a woman would feel.

Mungiu films the day with deft: Otilia feels boxed in by the camera itself, even in wide, distant shots. Every moment is fraught with tension, every mundane triviality becomes part of a burden for Otilia to bear. And as the story progresses, even the small burdens, like the petty squabbles with her boyfriend and the condescending chitchat of his relatives, we begin to wonder whether the sum of these burdens is more than she can stand. Mungiu’s film is not meant to be a paean to the pro-choice ethos, but he makes it clear that the subjugation of women is a monstrous injustice. But even this is but the symptom of a larger sickness — the social sickness of a people bullied into fear and mistrust by their total lack of power. And in 1987, so cruelly close to the end of Ceauşescu’s reign, that sickness was all the more bitter. Mungiu wants to show us that merely surviving that era was unremarkable, but surviving with your humanity intact was all but impossible.

Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.

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