4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days
Last year's Cannes Palme d'Or winner begins with a sense of purpose pitched just beyond our grasp. Two young women are sharing a room in what appears to be some sort of training college dorm. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is busily getting her friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) ready for a trip. It's not clear where she might be going or why, but she's taking the tablecloth with her. She wants some cigarettes. And Otilia is trying to borrow some money for her too. She goes off to meet her boyfriend, who wants her to come to his mother's birthday party that evening. She's reluctant, but can't explain why. In the end she promises to be there, and it's off on another errand for Gabita.
There's a grim determination about these enigmatic early scenes that puts you on notice writer-director Cristian Mungiu isn't going to be making any concessions here. Like last year's acclaimed Romanian "comedy" The Death of Mr Lazarescu, scenes are tracked in long, documentary-style takes. Each cut is like the end of a chapter. While the events of a day are telescoped into two hours' running time, this intensely claustrophobic technique conveys a powerful sense of realism and builds up a tremendous sense of suspense.
Most viewers will have an idea of what's coming from advance publicity or reviews - or, indeed, from deciphering that elliptical title. Whether you know it or not (and there will be SPOILERS in the next paragraph) the movie operates on a gnawing sense of dread as the reason for Gabita's excursion gradually becomes clear and Otilia is drawn into an ever more nightmarish scenario. In a way, this is the art movie equivalent of one of those torture porn horror movies everyone is so reproachful of, no matter that perhaps the most painful scene to watch is a celebratory dinner party, where everyone is oblivious to the heroine's suffering.
Mungiu presents the act of abortion front and centre, more graphically than you are likely to see anywhere outside right-to-life propaganda. Set in the late 1980s, during an Eastern bloc regime that is definitively history, it's not really an issues movie, but on that political level, like Vera Drake, it is no advertisement for termination, even as it makes it clear that the back street alternative is simply unconscionable.
This Romanian film's candor makes quite the contrast with the recent trio of US pregnancy comedies (Knocked Up; Waitress and the forthcoming Juno); it's clearly the product of an infinitely less sentimental and more punishing culture - which is partly the point. Mungiu is of an age to remember life behind the Iron Curtain, and whatever the opposite of nostalgia may be, this surely qualifies.
That said, at heart this is an ethical and moral drama - and for all the wretched behaviour we witness, it's really a film about a Good Samaritan who does her best to do right by her in many ways unworthy friend. You may not approve of the choices Otilia makes - she certainly does things many of us would think twice about - but her courage and fortitude are obvious. Anamaria Marinca's performance is simply staggering - in a just world she'd be picking up the Academy Award next month. But of course a just world would never produce such a harrowing, wrenching movie like this, or give us reason to suffer through it, and feel purged afterwards.