In a key scene of Romanian writer–director Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Gabita Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) and her college roommate and friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) agree never again to discuss the horrific events of that day.
To draw a shroud of silence over certain overwhelming experiences, to treat them as unmentionable, is a natural impulse, and perhaps a necessary one. By consigning them to silence, we confine them to the past and allow ourselves to move on. What can scarcely be borne as private memory becomes unendurable if brought into the shared present by a spoken word. Yet such silence, whether personal or social, can also be a form of dishonesty, a tacit unwillingness to confront the implications of an unwanted truth. We avert our eyes, like urban pedestrians avoiding the gaze of a derelict on the sidewalk.
Like previous Romanian export The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months compels us not to avert our eyes. Even though the actual events remain out of sight — apart from a single, indelible shot not unlike images seen in some types of pro-life materials — its confrontation of the unmentionable is no less devastating.
Points of contact between 4 Months and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu go further. Each film depicts events of a single day in Bucharest, filmed by director of photography Oleg Mutu with an eye to the dreariness of urban decay. Each is a bleak, quietly appalling chronicle of a nearly unnoticed tragedy that is also an atrocity — a slow-motion train wreck in an ennervated and decaying urban world too far gone to care.
Both films involve a death, and indeed allude to a death in their titles, though the death is less the focus than the circumstances and transactions surrounding it. Indeed, the focus is not so much on the more directly affected party as on a sympathetic would-be advocate — in Lazarescu, a conscientious nurse; in 4 Months, a caring college roommate.
Still, the final minutes of both films are overshadowed by death, like a pall — except that there is no pall, literally or figuratively. Pleas for some measure of dignity for the victim are not realized, compounding the naked sense of loss.
The two deaths involve opposite stages in life and diametrically opposed crises. The earlier title refers to a terminally ill 63-year-old man whom an increasingly desperate nurse is trying to get admitted to a hospital. The latter title indicates the gestational age of the fetus whose procured termination involves Gabita and Otilia in even more desperate straits.
4 Months is set in 1987, in the last years of the Communist regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu, during which abortion was illegal (and divorce discouraged) in an effort to promote population growth. As with anything else, of course, black-market forces dictate that where demand is great enough, those willing to pay the price can find a potential supplier.
Like Lazarescu, 4 Months is deliberately mundane in its naturalism, with its blighted urban decline, low-key performances and exchanges that sound like snatches of conversation overheard in a corridor. Sequences are crafted with inconspicuous but exacting formal rigor, with each scene filmed without cuts in a single unbroken shot. The effect is as close to “fly on the wall” filmmaking as movies can get, and embodies the humanistic perspective — apparently characteristic of the new Romanian cinema — that simply to relate the story of a significant human event, to tell the truth without gloss or commentary, has value in itself.
Dramatically, given the crucial event in 4 Months, this approach is fraught with difficulty. Although the film is dominated by circumstances surrounding an abortion, abortion itself must not dominate the film. Mungiu cannily bypasses arguments and talking points by relating the events of the crucial day, with the decision already made — a narrative strategy formally similar to, say, United 93. Yet for precisely that reason any conflict must come from elsewhere, as the conflict in United 93 centers on the crisis of the passengers’ resistance, not the hijacking. But the enormity of abortion and the controversy around it threatens to overwhelm almost any other conceivable crisis.
Astonishingly, a ghastly twist midway through 4 Months, though organic to the story, succeeds in raising the stakes to a sickening new level. The abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), is the polar opposite of the titular protagonist of Vera Drake, who performs backroom abortions as acts of intended humanitarianism. Bebe is a repellently convincing monster, a remorseless victimizer whose crimes are all the more dreadful for the spark of humanity and even something like solicitude that he manifests in the very end.
It is fair to say that these sequences, and others that follow, throw into relief the terrible collateral of illegal backroom abortion. Pro-choice viewers may be quick to point out all the suffering and risk that could have been avoided if abortion were legal, and rightly so.
Yet the pathos of 4 Months is not exhausted by the degrading and dangerous consequences of its black-market circumstances. There is a final moment of truth in which what had been a problem to be gotten rid at any cost of is given a face, and the human dimension of the proceedings is squarely confronted. At that point, it is felt to be no longer possible to treat the fetus as a piece of tissue, to be disposed of like so much waste. Or is it? After all, isn’t that what would have happened in a clinic, with a legal abortion?
4 Months comes closest to commentary in the final scene, which finds one of the main characters sitting down to a meal in the restaurant of the hotel where the abortion was performed. A wedding reception is in full swing in the next room, but a fight has broken out in the party. The waiter brings a dish from the reception menu: beef, liver, kidneys, breaded brains. What happens when human beings treat one another as no more than this? 4 Months offers queasy but meaty food for thought.
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I am pro-life, have always been and will always be pro-life. At age 17, I went to Romania as a Friendship Ambassador with our youth orchestra in 1979 (I was very poor; this trip cost me $35.00 as part of a government-sponsored program). So … I could not wait to see 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days when I heard about it on Al Kresta’s program.
This movie certainly captures the struggles of poor women in a country behind the Iron Curtain under the Nicolae Ceauşescu regime. However, I do not understand how this was a great film and more importantly, it seems to promote the idea pro abortion advocates champion in their on-going litany and rhetoric to “keep abortion safe and legal.” I believe this film helps the other side and should not be promoted by Catholics.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.