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Film Review by Larry Thomas, WVXU-91.7 FM Cincinnati, July 19, 2008

So you think you have problems? Try living in a country where everything is controlled by the government. If you go to college, the government tells you where to go to work. If you want simple items from toothpaste to cigarettes to chewing gum, your best shot is the black market. You can't even rent a hotel room without playing twenty questions with the government's underpaid desk clerk and presenting your ID card, which must be on your person at all times.

These are all situations seen in the Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, and set in 1987 when Romania was still a hard-line Communist state. And these minor activities pale by comparison when Gabita attempts to get an illegal abortion, an offence punishable by ten years in prison. Her friend and roommate in a college dormitory, Otilia, agrees to help Gabita, even though she would be subject to imprisonment as well. Like everything else in 1987 Romania, it's something that must be done via the black market.

Since the government at that time was watching everyone for everything, the film plays out like a tense spy thriller. Trust is harder to come by than chewing gum. No one can make a move without checking to see if someone is following. Even the back alley abortionist, who makes speeches about helping, is really only in it for the money.

As directed by the talented Cristian Mungiu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, is a shattering film showing how, in a Communist state, the thumb of oppression on its citizenry affects every personal decision, from a simple purchase to a life-altering event.

The performances are terrific, especially Anamarie Marinca as Otilia. She has a boyfriend in medical school, but she is studying technology to ensure that she won't be sent to a rural area to work. A brilliant dinner party scene at Otilia's boyfriends' parents apartment is fraught with tension as the young lovers, obviously at odds with each other, sit in the middle of idle chatter among family and friends. It's done in one long take with no camera movement, as if the viewer were in the room.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is neither an anti-abortion film, nor a political statement. It is an observation about how ordinary Romanians go about making decisions affecting their lives under oppressive circumstances. The director gives the cityscape a grey, cold, and dirty look, which assists in making these characters come vividly to life.

In 2007, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days became the first Romanian film to win the coveted Palm D'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. If, as some have proclaimed, this film is the dawn of the new wave of Romanian cinema, it likely won't be the last. Too bad it wasn't nominated for the 2008 Oscar, as it would have been the front-runner.

In Romanian with English Subtitles, the unrated 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days is a presentation of Cincinnati World Cinema at the Cincinnati Art Museum, and shows at 7 pm on Tuesday and Wednesday.

       Film review © 2008, Cincinnati Public Radio      WVXU source location.

Film Review by Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun Times, February 7, 2008
Ebert Rating:  

Gabita is perhaps the most clueless young woman ever to have the lead in a movie about her own pregnancy. Even if you think "Juno" was way too clever, two hours with Gabita will have you buying a ticket to Bucharest for Diablo Cody. This is a powerful film and a stark visual accomplishment, but no thanks to Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). The driving character is her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), who does all the heavy lifting.

The time is the late 1980s. Romania still cringes under the brainless rule of Ceausescu. In Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," Gabita desires an abortion, which was then illegal, not for moral reasons, but because Ceausescu wanted more subjects to rule. She turns in desperation to her roommate Otilia, who agrees to help her, and does. Helps her so much, indeed, she does everything but have the abortion herself. In a period of 24 hours, we follow the two friends in a journey of frustration, stupidity, duplicity, cruelty and desperation, set against a background of a nation where if it weren't for the black market, there'd be no market at all.

For Gabita, the notion of taking responsibility for her own actions is completely unfamiliar. We wonder how she has survived to her current 20-ish age in a society that obviously requires boldness, courage and improvisation. For starters, she persuades Otilia to raise money for the operation. Then she asks her to go first to meet the abortionist. Then she neglects to make a reservation at the hotel that the abortionist specifies. That almost sinks the arrangement: The abortionist has experience suggesting that hotel will be a safe venue, and suspects he may be set up for a police trap. His name, by the way, is Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), and no, "bebe" is apparently not Romanian for "baby," but it looks suspicious to me.

The movie deliberately levels an unblinking gaze at its subjects. There are no fancy shots, no effects, no quick cuts, and Mungiu and his cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, adhere to a rule of one shot per scene. That makes camera placement and movement crucial, and suggests that every shot has been carefully prepared. Even shots where the ostensible subject of the action is half-visible, or not seen at all, serve a purpose, by insisting on the context and the frame. Visuals are everything here; the film has no music, only words or silences.

Otilia is heroic in this context; she reminds me a little of the ambulance attendant in the 2005 Romanian film "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," who drove a dying man around all night, insisting on a hospital for him. Otilia grows exasperated with her selfish and self-obsessed friend, but she keeps on trying to help, even though she has problems of her own.

One of them is her boyfriend Adi (Alex Potocean), who is himself so self-oriented that we wonder if Otilia is attracted to the type. Even though she tries to explain that she and Gabita have urgent personal business, he insists on Otilia coming to his house to meet his family that night. He turns it into a test of her love. People who do that are incapable of understanding that to compromise would be a proof of their own love.

The dinner party she arrives at would be a horror show even in a Mike Leigh display of social embarrassment. She's jammed at a table with too many guests, too much smoking, too much drinking, and no one who pays her the slightest attention, and as the unmoving camera watches her, we wait for her to put a fork in somebody's eye. When she gets away to make a phone call, Adi follows her and drags her into his room, and then Adi's mother bursts in on them and we see from whom Adi learned his possessiveness

When the friends finally find themselves in a hotel room with the abortionist, the result is as unpleasant, heartless and merciless as it could possibly be. I'll let you discover for yourself. And finally there is a closing scene where Otilia and Gabita agree to never refer to this night again. Some critics have found the scene anticlimactic. I think it is inevitable. If I were Otilia, I would never even see Gabita again. I'd send over Adi to collect my clothes.

Filmmakers in countries of the former Soviet bloc have been using their new freedom to tell at last the stories they couldn't tell then. "The Lives of Others," for example, was about the East German secret police. And in Romania, the era has inspired a group of powerful films, including "Mr. Lazarescu" and "12:08 East of Bucharest" (2006) and "4 Months," which won the Palme d'Or at Cannes 2007, upsetting a lot of American critics who admired it but liked "No Country for Old Men" more.

The film has inspired many words about how it reflects Romanian society, but obtaining an illegal abortion was much the same in this country until some years ago, and also in Britain, as we saw in Leigh's "Vera Drake." The fascination of the film comes not so much from the experiences the friends have, however unspeakable, but in who they are, and how they behave and relate. Anamaria Marinca gives a masterful performance as Otilia, but don't let my description of Gabita blind you to the brilliance of Laura Vasiliu's acting. These are two of the more plausible characters I've seen in a while.

       Film review © 2008, Roger Ebert Chicago Sun Times      Chicago Sun Times/Roger Ebert source location.

New York Times review, Manohla Dargis, January 25, 2008

This movie has been designated a Critic's Pick by the film reviewers of The Times.

Friend Indeed Who Doesn't Judge or Flinch

In "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," a ferocious, unsentimental, often brilliantly directed film about a young woman who helps a friend secure an abortion, the camera doesn't follow the action, it expresses consciousness itself. This consciousness -- alert to the world and insistently alive -- is embodied by a young university student who, one wintry day in the late 1980s, helps her roommate with an abortion in Ceausescu's Romania when such procedures were illegal, not uncommon and too often fatal. It's a pitiless, violent story that in its telling becomes a haunting and haunted intellectual and aesthetic achievement.

You may already have heard something about "4 Months," which was awarded the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival last year, only to be shut out from Academy Award consideration a few weeks ago by the philistines who select the foreign-language nominees. The Oscars are absurd, yet they can help a microscopically budgeted foreign-language film find a supportive audience. And "4 Months" deserves to be seen by the largest audience possible, partly because it offers a welcome alternative to the coy, trivializing attitude toward abortion now in vogue in American fiction films, but largely because it marks the emergence of an important new talent in the Romanian writer and director Cristian Mungiu.

With a lack of ceremony and no music to set the mood, Mr. Mungiu opens "4 Months" on the pale, lithe Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) moving about a cramped university dorm room, rearranging this and that, and packing a plastic tablecloth in a travel bag while exchanging seeming banalities with Otilia (Anamaria Marinca, sensational and impeccably controlled). Because Mr. Mungiu writes words rather than exposition, he doesn't explain what's going on or why. It takes time for you to find the meaning in his words and the pauses in between them. You sift through naturalistic conversations that -- much like the dorm's grubby furnishings, its darkly lighted hallways and the mewling kittens Otilia finds in those grim passages -- seem artless, more like real life than aesthetic choices.

But "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is nothing if not a triumph of aesthetic choices, of fluidly moving camerawork, rigorous framing and sustained long shots that allow you to explore the image rather than try to catch hold of it. The film starts off quietly despite Gabita's jitters, but subtly shifts registers once Otilia leaves to run some errands. With the camera sometimes leading and sometimes following, Otilia cruises through the long dorm halls, drops in on some other students and buys cigarettes from a resident vendor. There's urgency in her step despite the casualness of these exchanges, an exigency that's expressed both by the worry in her face and the way Mr. Mungiu keeps her steadily locked in his camera's sights.

Over the course of the film this persistence of vision creates an extraordinary level of tension. Otilia, it soon emerges, has just begun a harrowing journey that will take her from one bleak hotel to another (where the customer is always and often comically wrong) and through a labyrinth of near-pitch-black streets and darker human behavior. Otilia will stand by Gabita, who will almost collapse in turn, and go up against her own lover, Adi (Alex Potocean), and a grotesque back-alley abortionist cruelly known as Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov, terrifying), who will test the limits of the women's friendship. Throughout her odyssey Mr. Mungiu and his camera will keep watch on Otilia without close-ups, speeches, false morality or judgment.

What you get instead is a painstakingly real world of worn-out rooms and worn-out lives, and black-market deals over cigarettes and human bodies. The verisimilitude can be startling, enveloping. You see the history of this place etched in its people, in Otilia's determined face and Gabita's lissome form, which sways against difficulties like a reed. You see it too in the camerawork that, like Otilia, never relinquishes its intense focus yet seems to catch details -- like the dog that passes near her when she first tries to book a hotel room -- with the lightness of a happy accident. Hours later, during an unbearably tense scene when she's surrounded by barking dogs on a desolate street, you realize there are no accidents here, just art.

In some respects Mr. Mungiu has created a fascinating companion piece to another recent Romanian tour de force, the 2005 drama "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu." Directed by Cristi Puiu -- and shot by Oleg Mutu, the ingenious director of photography for "4 Months" -- "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" explores the intersection of the social and the personal on the human body, and the incalculable trivial and monumental ways our bodies are at once situated in the world as objects and subjects. Over the course of the torturous, inept hospitalization that eventually realizes the threat of the film's title, Mr. Lazarescu's body becomes a field of meaning, a landscape of despair and a site of brutal exchange among other, more robust bodies.

In interviews, Mr. Mungiu has resisted some of the metaphoric readings of his film (say, as an attack on the Ceausescu regime) and resisted making overt declarations on abortion. 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." This isn't to say that "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" isn't also about human will and the struggle for freedom in the face of state oppression, only to suggest that such readings can be limited and limiting. 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.

Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Written (in Romanian, with English subtitles) and directed by Cristian Mungiu; director of photography, Oleg Mutu; edited by Dana Bunescu; production designer, Mihaela Poenaru; produced by Mr. Mutu and Mr. Mungiu.; released by IFC Films and Red Envelope Entertainment. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Anamaria Marinca (Otilia), Vlad Ivanov (Domnu Bebe), Laura Vasiliu (Gabita), Alex Potocean (Adi) and Luminita Gheorghiu (Doamna Radu).

       Film review © 2008, New York Times Company      NYT source location.

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