Nothing good happens in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the riveting, horrifying chronicle of an illegal abortion performed in 1987 when Ceau¸escu’s dictatorial hand still gripped Romania’s throat. And yet no lover of greatness in filmmaking will want to look away from one of the very best movies of 2007, just now receiving its American release. Cristian Mungiu’s powerful documentary-style drama — rightful winner of the top prize at Cannes last year — arrives on the heels of Cristi Puiu’s 2006 international award winner, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu. And taken together, the two establish a new, exciting, distinctly Romanian cinematic voice distinguished by a preference for documentary-style austerity and a control that only looks artless, applied in service to social realism and the honest commemoration of recent history. With no little irony does Mungiu bill 4 Months as the first in his ”Tales of the Golden Age.”
The action takes place over the longest 24 hours in the lives of fellow college students Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, who’d win an Oscar in my ideal universe). Gabita is the pregnant one; she’s also the more childlike one, nearly paralyzed with fear. So it falls to Otilia, the more resourceful one, to arrange for a termination — raising the cash, procuring the abortionist, and booking the hotel in which the terrible business can be done. In the beginning, Mungiu documents their shared tenement life itself as a microcosm of what it takes to survive in a beaten-down society, a hive of bartering and bribing for everything from cigarettes to soap. Otilia is proficient at the deal, but she’s on much more dangerous ground negotiating with a service provider who’s nothing like the empathetic back-alley heroine of Vera Drake. She’s also alone, unable to entrust even her boyfriend with her secrets: He’s from a higher class of the ”classless” society, and in one of the movie’s most devastating scenes, Otilia sits silently at her beau’s family table (a family lousy with well-to-do doctors, no less), while glib opportunists party all around her.
The abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), is at once a monster, a necessity, and just another literally damned man working his own degraded and degrading angles in a no-win society. Yet by the time he finishes with his ministrations — and they are all the more terrible for taking place just out of camera sight — these two young women will be scarred in ways even they couldn’t have imagined. Working with Oleg Mutu, the superb cinematographer who also shot Mr. Lazarescu, Mungiu has a daring sense of when to hoist a handheld camera and when to let the camera sit still while characters move in and out of the frame in long, unbroken takes — as in real life. Misery is everywhere in this spare masterpiece, but so is artistic triumph. A