Director: Cristian Mungiu
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Fourteen hours after the end of 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, and I’m still stunned. This urgent Romanian film, whose narrative drive is a welcome change of pace from many languid offerings at the CIFF this year, is so real, so nerve-rattling, that it creates a sense memory that’s hard to shake. I’ve viewed other films in the CIFF’s main competition—and fine film they are, too—but nothing compares with 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. If it doesn’t capture the Gold Hugo Award the same way it captured the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, I’ll be very surprised.
The handheld digital camera establishes a shaky restlessness in the opening scene. Two young women are moving like mice around their dorm room, seeming to be moving objects from one place to another and back again. This is only an illusion, however. Their actions are purposeful. Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) moves a fish tank with a couple of goldfish and about two inches of water from the table and folds up the plastic tablecloth. Her roommate Otilia asks if that was the tank someone gave her a while back. Yes, but different fish. She asks her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to get one of their dorm mates to feed the fish. “We won’t be gone long. The fish can survive without food for two days.” The dubious look on Gabita’s face tells Otilia that she’d better make arrangements for the feedings. Something tells me the other fish died because Gabita forgot to feed them. Otilia asks Gabita if they have any soap. Gabita says no and then tells her what kind of soap to get; she has sensitive skin. Otilia also must get Kent cigarettes. They’re the only kind Gabita likes.
Otilia makes the rounds of the dormitory to fetch Gabita’s hair dryer from another girl and to visit the Arab student who runs a small sundries store from his dorm room. He doesn’t have Kents. Off Otilia goes, racing to catch a trolley to help her complete her chores.
She visits her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean), who teaches at her school. He gives her a passionate kiss and gropes her. She asks him to stop, that it embarrasses her, but she’s obviously very taken with him, too. He reminds her to be at his home at 5 p.m. for his mother’s birthday party. She says she can’t come. He can’t believe she’d slight his parents, to whom he planned to introduce her for the first time. She is insistent that she can’t. He asks her what’s going on. She won’t tell him. He presses her. She still refuses. He becomes distressed, and she agrees to come to the party. “I don’t know how I’ll manage it, but I’ll be there.” She promises to bring flowers, then asks him if he knows where she can buy some Kents. He suggests the black marketer at a nearby hotel. She nods matter-of-factly.
She goes to the hotel to check on a room reserved under the name “Drugat.” The clerk finds this an unusual name, probably suspecting it to be a pseudonym. In any case, there is no reservation under that name. The reservation was made by phone and no confirmation was secured. Despite Otilia’s best attempts to suggest that the person who took the reservation made a mistake, she is turned away. As she leaves, she approaches the black marketer, who is standing nonchalantly in the lobby. He sells her a box of Kents.
She finds another hotel and persuades the clerk to rearrange her reservations to secure a room for three days. The rate is rather high, and Otilia balks. The clerk becomes abrupt and asks her if she wants the room or not. Otilia agrees. She calls Gabita and tells her to borrow more money because some of the money they had needs to go for the hotel room. Gabita then informs her that Otilia must meet a Mr. Bebe for her and gives her an address. Otilia tells Gabita to meet her at the hotel and then hurries to the location and meets the suspicious Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). He asks her why Gabriela didn’t come herself, as they had agreed. Otilia makes up a story and gets into his car. He insists that she trust him because he is trusting her. With what? With keeping their secret. Mr. Bebe is to perform an abortion on Gabriela.
Abortion is illegal in Romania, so we get a visit to the bad old days of girls in trouble at the mercy of back alley abortionists. Mr. Bebe is probably no worse than some of his other “colleagues,” but he’s still a threatening presence who carries a switchblade along with the tools of his trade and demands sexual favors in lieu of shortfalls in cash. He assures himself of getting this fringe benefit by refusing to discuss money with his potential clients, saying only that they’ll “work something out.” He’s especially harsh with Gabita and Otilia because Gabita has lied about how far along she is—saying two months when she’s well into her fourth month. The three of them could face a charge of murder if caught.
After Bebe inserts the probe that will terminate the pregnancy and leaves, Gabita comes clean about more discrepancies to Otilia. She says she wasn’t “up” to meeting Bebe, that she said Otilia was her sister because it seemed like the right thing to do, that she picked Bebe instead of a woman because she thought Otilia didn’t care one way or the other. Otilia denies ever mentioning anything about her preferences. Angrily, she warns Gabita not to “think” so much again. But the damage has been done.
Otilia leaves the hotel to keep her promise to Adi, but she’s angry, traumatized, and irritated by his bourgeois family and guests who seem to look down on her working-class origins. With the fall of Communism, the put-upon intellectuals and professionals like Adi’s parents feel free to vent their spleen. Finally, when Adi and Otilia are alone, she faces him with a hypothetical decision—what would he do if she got pregnant. He’s confused and horrified and wholly unprepared to give her any security. It is then that she tells him she helped Gabita get an abortion.
The carefree life of the dormitory, the close friendship of Gabita and Otilia, the sensuous romance of Adi and Otilia—all have turned rancid for Otilia. She sees Gabita as a weak, careless, demanding creature. Adi, she thinks, is a man who can love as long as he and Otilia don’t have any bumps in the road. Whether these assessments are entirely fair, they certainly have surfaced in some fashion during this ordeal. Otilia herself is revealed to be a self-sacrificing martyr who was finally asked to do too much.
What is so compelling about 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days is its profound reality, its avoidance of cheap melodrama, and its feeling for the surface and undercurrents of Romanian life. There’s no blunting the force of this powerful work of art. It’s a bonafide masterpiece.