4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days

Ever since Bruno Dumont was bequeathed the honors of the Cannes festival jury (including two grand prize awards for this and this film), I have been doubtful of just how significant the honor is. That is not to say that Dumont didn’t deserve the awards (he did) but that they had almost no effect whatsoever on the mass shitting that all his movies, save his debut, have wrongfully received. Somehow, I don’t think 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days will have that problem. It was the surprise winner of the Palme D’or for 2007 and it’s easy to understand why – Its eloquently affecting power is too moving to ignore and too tenacious to be misunderstood. The film is already getting its due both critically and commercially, in fact it will soon open in the area via Landmark theatres. I suggest you see it, but be warned – it’s not the kind of date movie that will result in a pleasant romp later in the evening. Then again, that disclaimer should be self evident under consideration that the film is being referred to as “that Romanian abortion movie.”

The film documents a day in the life of two college roommates. Gabita is the underprepared pregnant one and Otilia is her friend who, it turns out, is willing to do almost anything to help her. The girls prepare for the illegal abortion like they would an exam – with a sort of dignified verve. They overcome some small setbacks only to be faced with some much bigger ones. The overcome those, then a short diversion and then the procedure and the clean up. Finally they are left to face the reality of what they just did. This is where we leave the characters and their struggle in the film’s beautiful final moment. In strictly real time we experience these events and the transformations that they cause, and this is where the power of the story rises above any particular cinematic aesthetic.

The style is not necessarily anything new. Michael Haneke, the Dardenne brothers, Bella Tarr, Lars Von Trier, Bruno Dumont, and many more have successfully stripped realism to its rudimentary core when approaching modern subjects. What this film contributes to that towering (and intimidating) canon measures in at least two traits. First, it’s a story about abortion. Not a message, but a topic that is contextualized within the milieu of post-Ceausescu Romania. Of course framing the story in an oppressive political state also carries strong political implications. But Mungiu downplays them and renders significance in the way that they are not ever specifically mentioned, only alluded to. It is consistent with the realist tradition that the context is explored only in the implications of the films primary characters. The second quality is revealed in the moments of black irony that will somehow make you laugh in the midst of such real pain and difficulty (particularly if you’re Romanian, I’m told). Notice the dizzying dinner table conversation that logically progresses from raising children and family values to the idea of waiting 9 months for a soldier to come home. The camera is focused intently on Otilia and the audience experiences the implications of the painfully clinical abortion scene that just occurred right with her. At one point the phone quietly rings in the background. She hears it, and we hear it – has something gone wrong at the hotel or is it nothing? Is someone going to answer it? The scene is simultaneously excruciating and mischievous. And, it’s devastating, as is almost every scene in the film. (For definitive evidence of black irony pay attention to the meal that Gabita eats in the final scene after expunging her child)

It’s textbook realism, yes, but it’s also the moment where Mungiu reveals his cards and stakes claim as the commanding director that he is. His scenes frame the incidental narratives that drift in and out of people’s lives in such a way that he bestows the utmost effect on the viewer using tiny hints of activity drawn from our collective prosaic activities. It’s this subtle yet potent statement in the midst of a brutally real and painfully accurate story that speaks to Mungiu’s power as a great director. And it indicates his truly grand sense of irony, suggested so intuitively onto the screen. 4 Months also proclaims the vitality of the emergent Romanian New Wave (now that’s a catchphrase to watch out for!) better than anything else associated with the “movement” so far. But if you need further proof of its actual vitality, check out the Walker’s February 8th screening of the late Cristian Nemescu’s exceptional final film California Dreamin’ (Endless).