The Reeler


January 24, 2008

4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Vaunted Romanian drama a finely crafted -- yet somehow incomplete -- bureaucratic epic

Because entertainment journalism's trend-seeking sometimes seeps over into criticism, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days is getting shunted into two fairly dismissive categories. On the one hand, it's an Abortion Movie -- the depressing corrective to all those who carped that Juno and Katherine Heigl (in Knocked Up) should've gotten an abortion from Vera Drake. On the other hand, it's the unofficial conclusion to the ad hoc trilogy of New Romanian Cinema films that have received actual American distribution, however token: On the heels of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 12:08: East of Bucharest, it offers up more alcoholics, decaying bureaucratic infrastructures stubbornly remaining from Communist rule and gray winter weather.

4 Months should be the capstone to this relatively triumphant arrival in American arthouses -- it won the Palme D'Or seemingly out of nowhere at last year's Cannes Film Festival, leading to the film's hasty pulling from the LA Film Festival to a more elevated-status-appropriate slot at the New York Film Festival. But 4 Months is in fact the weirdest and most incomplete of the three -- accomplished but (sorry) abortive.

4 Months isn't even about abortion; it's about the underground black economies which pop up when the command variety cease to function properly. In Cristian Mungiu's grimy recreation of 1987 Romania, anything that needs to be done quickly isn't done through official channels but rather purchased one cigarette pack at a time; the economy is literally killing itself. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) walks around getting pieces of the puzzle for her roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu); by itself, that seems like business as usual. Gradually, it emerges that Gabita needs an abortion, and pulling one together is a two-person operation. What's more upsetting -- a nation's wholesale economic decline (no, not you, Mr. and Mrs. America) or an individual tragedy?

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Because 4 Months is filmed like a Wiseman-esque indictment of social institutions rather than a personal drama (like Mr. Lazarescu, with which it shares cinematographer Oleg Mutu), it's weird to find conventional dramatic beats all over the place, albeit way out of conventional order. Like a twisted bureaucratic epic, 4 Months begins in media res, eventually explains what's going on, then stops dead 2/3 of the way through for an extended dinner sequence where Otilia simultaneously fends off her clueless boyfriend (Alex Potocean) and his parents' asshole friends. Suddenly she emerges not as a supporting player but the true protagonist -- a discovery that comes once the presumable climax (the actual abortion) has taken place.

4 Months should end there. Instead, it plods on for an unnecessary 20 minutes, which mainly convey the idea that, for many woman, abortion can be a painful experience even if it's the only viable experience. No shit; what 4 Months does so well the rest of the time is avoid the temptation to cheaply "personalize" the trauma of national disintegration. Unsure whether it's political and personal, 4 Months throws away the balance of its flawlessly acted, impressively shot running time in favor of making sure that everyone gets it.

Comments (2)

You have a couple weak points in your review.
1) "4 Months isn't even about abortion."
This is obvious. Only marketing people say it is.

2) "Unsure whether it's political and personal."
Umm, it's both. I would say the director is not unsure. Perhaps you went into the movie expecting it to me one or the other and therefore you were unsure?

1) Hm, Manohla Dargis seems less certain:

"I’ve read more than once that the film is not about abortion (or even an abortion) but, rather, totalitarianism, a take that brings to mind Susan Sontag’s observation that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” ... Mr. Mungiu never forgets the palpably real women at the center of his film, and one of its great virtues is that neither do you."

Neither does Dana Stevens:
"What emerges is a scorching indictment of the stupidity of criminalizing abortion—Mungiu makes it clear, without ever spelling it out, that the state might as well outlaw sex itself."

2) Oh, I'm not unsure. What I know is this: the movie spends 80 minutes or so giving a very, very impressive delineation of the many complex maneuvers required to negotiate an environment that's been screwed by the Romanian government in every respect — and suddenly we're left with The Human Face of Tragedy, unmediated by any challenges. You could argue — and you wouldn't be wrong — that that final moment is the end-product of the very system we've been negotiating with the two women, and we don't need to be reminded of that once more. What I saw was a scene that could've been from another movie, a movie telling us what any abortion film could've done, Romania or not.

I wish they would've handed out the press kit to civilians, in which Mungiu makes the really interesting point that because Romania outlawed abortions, many people — then and now — viewed getting one as an act of political defiance. I certainly wouldn't have gotten that from the movie alone.

Apologies if I seem overly defensive; it's been a long week.

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