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REVIEW: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

By Philip Martin

This article was published March 28, 2008 at 2:07 a.m.

otilia-anamaria-marinca-comes-to-the-aid-of-a-friend-in-4-months-3-weeks-2-days

Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) comes to the aid of a friend in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days.

— There's no way to make Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days sound like the sort of movie the casual cineplex browser would want to see. It's the anti-Juno, a hellish sliver of life in 1987 Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu's reign of fear and repression. It's shot in a superficially plain documentary style that reinforces the brutal reality that informs the movie's naturalism. It's a film completely devoid of comic release and the last word you'd use to describe it is "sexy." It's as tough a cinematic experience as it is a sell.

It's also as viscerally powerful a movie as you're likely to ever see, a stark bleak testimony to friendship and the indomitability of the human spirit. While it usually is described as a depressing Romanian "abortion movie," 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is better understood as a different kind of buddy story, where one friend acts selflessly and decisively to save the other.Abortion in this case serves as a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin - the tiresome political orthodoxies the issue brings into play in American society are beside the point.

All we need to know is that under Ceausescu, the Romanian state sought to control the reproductive lives of its citizens. Abortion was illegal, and the consequences of having a child out of wedlock were disastrous, especially for young women aspiring to professional careers. So the black market prospered, as well as a labyrinthine network of possible informers. In 1980s Bucharest, bribes and blackmail were habits of everyday life.Even buying a pack of cigarettes (fashionable young Romanians preferred contraband American brands like Kool, which were distinguished from local brands by their whiter paper) could be a dangerous transaction.

So when university student Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) becomes pregnant, she has no choice other than to try to navigate these treacherous straits. She's lucky to have a devoted roommate, courageous and resourceful Otilia(Anamaria Marinca), to help her arrange things. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that the abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), is no humanitarian.

While it is tempting to classify Mungiu's moviemaking style as an Eastern correlative to the kitchen-sink social realism of British directors such as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach (though presumably without the leftish sympathies of those blokes), it's really quite a different mode. Though the acting is similarly calibrated - all the performances, especially Marinca's, are so understated and free of contrivance that it's easy to forget you're not watching real life - there's a coolness in Mungiu's gaze that runs counter to the barely submerged outrage of the Englishmen.

While we may have no way to adjudge the accuracy of Mungiu's re-creation of Ceausescu-era Bucharest, the selected details feel genuine and contribute to an extraordinary sense of verisimilitude.

Cinematographer Oleg Mutu's camera is for the most part hand-held, but he keeps it static for long takes - usually one shot per scene. Characters move in and out of the frame, creating feelings of paranoid tension and claustrophobia, allowing us an eavesdropper's sense of unearned intimacy. This latter element makes it reminiscent of the recent wave of microbudget "mumblecore" movies, which are proliferating as privileged post-collegiate Americans discover HD video. But 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has a formal rigor and discipline these movies purposely eschew, and a precisely plotted script that belies its seemingly desultory style.

MovieStyle, Pages 41 on 03/28/2008

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