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No. 39: “4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile” (2007)

“Here’s what we’re going to do, OK? We’ll never speak of this again.” ~~Otilia

Communist Romania was not a good place to be a woman. Under the decades-long tyrannical rule of Nicolae Ceauşescu, women were valued chiefly for their ability to produce offspring. The more children a woman produced, the more benefits she reaped; women who had no children were subject to a specialty tax. Living conditions for these children barely mattered. Adoption was not a viable choice, and abortions were a dangerous, illegal one. Ceauşescu’s message was unmistakable: Women were birth machines.

It is this reality that college roommates Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Găbiţa (Laura Vasiliu) must navigate in Cristian Mungiu’s tense, absorbing and inventively shot “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” The film, released a year after “The Lives of Others,” tills similar soil — dictators tend to be cut from the same mold — but Mungiu takes a minimalist approach: realistic dialogue, understated acting and enough haunting shots to merit a frame-by-frame study. The first indication that “4 Months” is something special comes in the way the storyline unfurls. We discover Otilia and Găbiţa are roommates packing for a trip neither seems happy about. Then Otilia knocks on a closed door in her dorm to buy cigarettes — a sure sign of a black market. Otilia also secures a hotel room for the pair and reality starts to sink in: Whatever she’s planning isn’t legal. Marinca’s performance indicates that Otilia, smart and reliable and resourceful, has learned to circumvent the roadblocks Ceauşescu’s mandates have placed in her way. She’s adapted to this world in ways her bumbling, weak-willed roommate has not. When the regime changes, Otilia will not have to. This is quietly compelling acting at its best.

Still later, their full plan comes to light: Otilia is making furtive plans for Găbiţa’s abortion. To be exact, Otilia’s tackling the tasks Găbiţa couldn’t handle, or fixing the instructions she has botched. This includes meeting with the abortionist, known as Mr. Bebe (a blood-freezing Vlad Ivanov), a cold businessman who has no patience for Găbiţa’s lies or her complete ineptitude. (It’s a testament to Vasiliu’s skill that she’s infuriating and still we sympathize with her.) Bebe’s matter-of-fact instructions about the procedure — use a plastic sheet to prevent staining the sheets; don’t dispose of the fetus, whole or “in pieces,” in a dumpster or bury it where dogs can dig it up — are chilling. Ivanov maintains an air of calm that conjures a predator with his prey squarely in range. Later, disgusted with Găbiţa’s stupidity, he threatens to walk away unless both girls pay a much higher price than they anticipated, a sum that has nothing to do with money.

In a less carefully constructed film, Bebe’s intentions might come as a surprise. Cristian Mungiu, however, is a master of mood creation, that delicate, tricky business that has tripped up directors with years more experience than he has. In shot after shot, it’s almost as if Mungiu’s camera is an extension of his brain — he’s that comfortable behind the lens. He has an awe-inspiring way of translating emotions into pictures. And every scene is unique. There’s one shot that cannot be ignored: a seemingly interminable scene where Otilia is stuck at a birthday party the house of her clueless boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean). With his relatives chattering around her, it’s as though Marinca is alone at the table — alone in her worry for Găbiţa, alone in her fear for her own future if the procedure goes wrong. This scene stretches for almost 10 minutes, but it’s not overlong; Mungiu knows what he’s doing. If he pulled back, he’d lose momentum and we’d lose that feeling of slow, excruciating suffocation he knows we have to experience to understand this world.

There are so many other scenes worthy of marvel that they must be left to self-discovery. Except this one: Mungiu presents a brief shot of Marinca, naked from the waist down, sitting in the hotel bathtub. While any other director would zoom in on her face, close in on the drama, this director stays back. Why? It is a moment of private humiliation, a moment we are not allowed to see. But because of Mungiu’s camera, we feel it.