A young woman is about to get an abortion. On the morning of the crucial day, what’s on her mind and how does she deal with it?
In the relentlessly forthright “4 Months, 3 Weeks 2 Days,” the young woman, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), spends the time waxing her legs in her college dorm, a dreary gray box in an institutional building somewhere in suburban Romania. At first it’s unclear what’s going on — Gabita talks to her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as if the day were like any other; freezing and dreary, the early morning hours are contaminated by complaints and disappointment (“I’m out of cigarettes,” “The hot water doesn’t work,” “The thermostat’s broken”).
Gradually it becomes clear that Gabita is about to undergo a secret and gruesome operation, and that Otilia has apparently offered to provide support. Neither of the women mention the father — apparently he’s not even an issue. Gabita is lethargic and taciturn, making her friend do the work of securing a room at a hotel, rendezvousing with an abortionist whose name was recommended by a classmate, and negotiating the price. The logistics of an illegal abortion are lingered upon with stark, matter-of-fact accuracy, the details meticulously drawn. And nothing alleviates the harshness and drudge-laden sequence of events — the world of “4 Months” is deadlocked in despair.
Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu sets the story in 1987, the tail end of despot Nikolae Ceausescu’s regime, but with two years still to go before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dictator’s execution. Very little information about what was going on in Romania reached the Western world during this period, and Mungiu — then a teenager — draws with chilling assurance a picture of a government that deprived its people of all but the bare essentials; forced birthrates up by banning abortion; and turned people into petty, scheming crooks by shunting them through the machinery of a dehumanizing social system. From the moment she wakes up, Otilia must argue and negotiate on the black market for every little thing, from a packet of gum to a bus ticket. Everywhere she goes, there is suspicion and surliness from the person on the other side of the counter, whether it’s a clerk at the hotel reception desk or a staffer in a dilapidated grocery store. Identification papers are demanded at every turn and helpfulness (or mere politeness) is nonexistent.
Otilia is a chemistry student, which means that, if she’s lucky, she might get a job in Budapest, but she can find little time for studying. On this day, she hardly finds the time to sit down and, ironically, her dedicated intensity resembles that of a nursemaid to an expectant mother.
Gabita is at first glance whiny and ineffectual, but she is concealing a tough, calculating core. In what has got to be one of the queasiest, horrific sequences in recent cinema, Gabita confronts the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) who goes by the darkly absurd nickname of “Bebe,” in the hotel room that was procured by the heroic effort of Otilia. Bebe is a chauvinist nightmare who operates in two modes — excessive bullying or unbearable patronizing. He lectures the girls about not following precise instructions about getting in touch, complains endlessly about the hotel and refuses to operate because Gabita has lied about her pregnancy term — saying it was two months instead of four. Gabita wheedles and begs and then without a pause in the hostile discussion, shifts from a helpless innocent to a kind of pimp who proffers Otilia’s sexual favors. Immediately and without a word, Otilia takes off her jeans as Bebe wastes no time unfastening his belt. Gabita leaves the room and kills time in the hallway. When Otilia is done, she too must do the same and after the girls wash themselves in the bathroom, Bebe finally, smirkingly, consents to carry out the deed.
“Four Months” is in no way a feminist movie nor is it particularly concerned with gender. Mungiu is more interested in what Ceausescu’s brand of communism did to his country, and the repercussions of the abortion ban. He implies that the full extent of the damage suffered by Gabita and Otilia, and even Bebe, is yet to come. Gabita apparently has lost the capacity to feel poignancy or remorse and by the end of the story has already adopted the surly apathy of a government clerk. Bebe’s petty sadism extends even to his aging mother, and though he tells the girls he’s married and has children of his own, you can feel their utter disbelief.
The most severely wounded is Otilia; in between engineering the abortion, having sex with Bebe and the disposal of the fetus, she must administer to the needs of her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean) and his insistence that she show up for his mother’s birthday party. Otilia’s words to him after she explains Gabita’s predicament (they talk in whispers in his room at his parents’ apartment) is heart-wrenching in its coldness and resignation: “If I get pregnant, I won’t tell you, I’ll get Gabita to help out.”
Under Ceausescu’s reign, no one could afford such a thing as disinterested kindness or simple friendship. Otilia gave, to ensure that she will get a return. Like the movie, she’s fascinating in her sheer, unflinching courageousness to look the unspeakable straight in the eye and stare it down.