Every year, every critic feels some movie was snubbed when Oscar nominations are announced. It’s not often, though, that so many people are upset about one film’s exclusion that even the chairman of the category’s committee promises to get the nominating rules changed.
That’s what happened this month when “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (“4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile”) didn’t even make the nine-film shortlist for best foreign language film, let alone the five-film list of actual nominees. The Romanian film had won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and ended up on many critics’ top-10 lists for the year, topping a couple of them.
There’s no question the academy should be embarrassed. “4 Months” is a powerful film, so gripping in both theme and execution that you can’t tear your eyes away even as it becomes almost too harrowing to watch.
The story takes place in 1987, during the final years of Romania’s communist regime. In a quiet dorm room, Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu) packs for a trip with the help of her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca). As we watch Gabita, as she’s known, wax her legs and carefully choose what to bring, we might think the young woman is off for a romantic tryst with a young man.
No such luck. Gabita is going just across town, to a hotel room where she plans to have an abortion, a procedure that became illegal soon after Ceausescu took power.
That could be the lead-in to a polemical cautionary tale or a merely melodramatic one, but “4 Months” is neither, due to the deeply intelligent work of writer-director Cristian Mungiu.
For one thing, he wisely chooses to tell the story not from the perspective of the girl having the abortion but from that of her roommate, allowing more action, more detachment, but also a more slowly growing sense of unease.
As the delicate, jumpy Gabita admits, “I can’t even bribe ticket inspectors.” Life under Ceausescu is a subtle game of constant negotiation, however, so the competent Otilia takes over the task of organizing the hideous act. But even she isn’t prepared for what happens in the hotel room and beyond. The chilling black-market abortionist Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) practically laughs at the girls’ naivete: “What did you think, I’d risk 10 years for 3,000 lei?”
This day is an extraordinary one for both girls, but the more usual, day-to-day details of life under communism also come through subtly in Otilia’s movements throughout. She can’t seem to find a coveted brand of foreign cigarettes that seem to accompany every important handshake in the country, and even soap is purchased through the black market, not at the corner store.
Mr. Mungiu tells this true story, the details of which he was told by a friend 15 years ago, unsparingly, with a determined realism, aided by the stark cinematography of Oleg Mutu and the perfect performances of his cast. It all adds up to a rare filmgoing experience that, Oscar snub notwithstanding, is simply impossible to forget.
TITLE: “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (“4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile”)
RATING: Not rated (adult themes, nudity, sexual situations)
CREDITS: Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu (in Romanian with English subtitles)
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes