The following review was originally published by Unbound Culture in Summer 2008.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, is a Romanian film written and directed by Cristian Mungiu. The film follows a young student, Otilia, as she attempts to help her roommate Găbiţa receive an illegal abortion. It opens in 1987 Romania at the tail end of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s oppressive rule. Ceauşescu was the communist leader of Romania from 1965 until 1989 when revolutionaries finally sentenced him to death. But you do not need a history lesson in order to experience this film. In fact, Ceauşescu is never even mentioned. However, because the film is told in a strictly dramatic fashion, the audience understands the hardships under Ceauşescu better, perhaps, than even the most knowledgeable in Romanian history.
Of course, many elements need to come together properly in order to create such a successful film drama. One such element is the cast, and surely a director could not ask for a finer cast than the one that graces 4 Months. Anamaria Marinca plays the lead role of Otilia Mihartescu, and we stay with her throughout most of the film. It is a pleasure watching her navigate the film’s long takes to bring her character to life. From the start, we watch her juggle her personal life and responsibilities with the burden of making sure everything is set for Găbiţa’s procedure. We learn early on that Găbiţa (played with a good balance of naivety and foolishness by Laura Vasiliu) is completely inept, and we’re certain that this ineptitude is going to cost Otilia something dear (it does).
As mentioned above, most of the scenes are filmed in long takes, which can be taxing on screen actors, but this cast embraces the challenge effortlessly. For example, during the scene when the abortionist Mr. Bebe (the menacing Vlad Ivanov) meets with the two girls at the hotel, a brilliantly paced power struggle occurs between the two parties. Because the scene is so long, and because the actors are so good, the tension builds to such a heated and raw level that you might feel physical discomfort. The drama pulls you in so close that you might as well be right there in the hotel room with the characters.
Even in moments of silence, the cast is transcendent. Take the dinner scene. After having just made a huge personal sacrifice for the sake of Găbiţa (I won’t reveal it—you’ll have to see the movie), Otilia must go to her boyfriend Adi’s place to celebrate his mother’s birthday. She doesn’t want to stay, which she makes clear, but ends up at the table anyway. Adi’s relatives converse while Otilia sits among them, the heaviness of all that has happened previous still weighing down on her. Try watching her closely for the duration of this scene. Watch her shame, frustration, and worry for Găbiţa circle about her, picking at her incessantly. Or, watch Alexandru Potocean, the actor playing Adi, as he gives an equally sublime performance. His confusion, anger, and desire to appear pleasant for the sake of his mother’s birthday are all expressed miraculously through his eyes and face. Hardly a word is spoken by either character in this scene, yet they communicate worlds of emotion.
Aside from featuring one of last year’s best ensemble casts, 4 Months is one of 2007’s best visual compositions. Cristian Mungiu and director of photography Oleg Mutu certainly took great care when framing their shots. One scene in particular stands out. After Bebe preps Găbiţa for her abortion and leaves the hotel, we see Otilia at the foot of her bed, sitting quietly. We see her from Găbiţa’s point of view, her legs protruding in front of us from the bottom of the screen. Not only is this setup mesmerizing, but we are looking at Otilia after she has just made her incredible sacrifice for Găbiţa—and we see her from Găbiţa’s perspective. Can we perhaps comprehend, or even feel, the mixed emotions Găbiţa must be feeling while she confronts her friend in this moment of silence? The camera dares us.
Another notable feature of 4 Months is its lack of a score. Although music can be (and certainly has been) used to heighten scenes of dramatic tension, it is not always necessary. In fact, an inappropriate score can ultimately detract from an otherwise perfect scene. This would have been the case with 4 Months had it been scored. Fortunately, the filmmakers had the good sense to trust the strength of their material on its own. Because of this, the natural poetry of the dialogue comes through, and the dramatic tension now builds on the haunting rhythms of silence.
The filmmakers also had the good sense to end 4 Months at just the right moment. Some have criticized the ending for being anticlimactic (probably the same people who criticized the ending of No Country for Old Men). These people clearly do not understand that a quiet, still ending can sometimes resonate more powerfully than a loud or tidy resolution. T. S. Eliot wrote, “This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” In art, as in life, this is often the case.