Mungiu’s second feature film follows the story of Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabriela ‘Gabita’ Dragut (Laura Vasiliu), two university friends in an unnamed Romanian town. The film is set in 1987, at the end of the oppressive Ceausescu regime. When Gabita becomes pregnant, the two girls arrange a meeting with Mr Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) in a hotel, where he is to perform an illegal abortion. After visiting her boyfriend to borrow money, Otilia heads to a hotel where Gabita has booked a room, only to be informed by an unfriendly receptionist that there is no reservation under Gabita’s last name. After much begging and haggling, they book a room at an expensive rate at a different hotel. Mr Bebe discovers that Gabita’s claim that her pregnancy was in its third month is a lie; in fact, it has been at least four months. The two women were certain that they would pay no more than 3,000 lei (equivalent to less than 10 pence in UK currency) for the abortion. However, it slowly becomes clear to them that he expects both women to have sex with him. Otilia reluctantly has sex with Mr Bebe so that he will not walk out on them, and eventually Gabita does as well. Mr Bebe then performs the abortion and leaves instructions on how to dispose of the foetus when it comes out. Otilia is exasperated by Gabita’s lies, yet continues to help her and care for her. Otilia leaves Gabita at the hotel to go to her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday, but then returns to help Gabita dispose of the foetus. In the film’s closing sequence, Otilia looks at the camera, leaving the audience to decide what will happen to the two friends.
Anne Jäckel wrote in 2000 that ‘[f]or all its long history, Romanian cinema has rarely been seen before’ (2000: 409). And yet, according to Variety (online) just seven years later, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was ‘further proof of Romania’s new prominence in the film world’ (2007).1 In fact, the film may be considered as indicative of a broader renaissance in Romanian cinema in the 2000s, particularly in light of other successful Romanian films, including Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), which won the Prix un certain regard at the Cannes Film Festival, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (2006), which won the Camera d’Or at the Festival a year later, and Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ (2007), which won the Prix un certain regard at Cannes one year after that.
The bleakness of the storyline and brutality of the action in Mungiu’s film convey a dark socio-political critique in the final years of a repressive dictatorship and contrasts starkly with the comedic approach he adopted for his feature debut, Occident (2002). The setting for this grippingly horrible movie is Romania, in 1987: that is, 2 years before Nicolae Ceausescu was executed, and 20 years after he had outlawed abortion in Romania to increase the birth rate. As Peter Bradshaw suggested in his review at the time of the film’s UK release, ‘without ever being overtly political, it makes you feel humanity itself being coarsened and degraded by the state’ (2008). He also referred to it as ‘part of that emerging twenty-first-century phenomenon, ordeal cinema: a cinema that with great formal technique makes you live through a horrendous experience in what seems like real time’ (2008). As a drama, it observes every subtle detail of the ordeal suffered by the young women, and it is ripe with tension as the unbearable climax is reached.
Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu play Otilia and Gabriela (Gabita), two students in their early twenties who share a room in a provincial Romanian town. Otilia is relatively experienced with a steady boyfriend; Gabriela, by contrast, is naïve and vulnerable, misjudging most situations. Their friendship is sorely tested by the decision to end Gabita’s pregnancy; it is only when these two scared young women are alone with the abortionist in the charmless hotel room that the awfulness of their situation reveals itself, and their commitment to one another is put on the line.
A sense of horror seeps into almost every scene around the film’s central event. For example, when Otilia meets the pompous and patronising Bebe for the first time, he complains about the way in which the young women have misunderstood the furtive arrangements. The camera fixes on Otilia in his car, revealing her distress via her facial expression, while Bebe gets out to bully an old woman about her accommodation. The scene continues until an unexplained explosive noise is heard off-screen, and Bebe returns to Otilia.
Overall, the film reveals the end of innocence in a brutal tale of coming of age. Otilia is angry, with no way of expressing her anger. She has seen what humans are capable of, and she is left to wonder what protection she would have, were she to be in the same state. She appears to wonder whether anyone would step up for her, the way she stepped up for her friend, after such a violation? These questions are eloquently suggested by Marinca’s stricken face, in an outstandingly subtle performance of utter distress.
The horror of the hotel scenes climaxes with a sequence in which Otilia must contain her torment and go through with a long-arranged visit to her boyfriend’s parents’ for an event that would have been excruciating under any circumstances. Her face shows that she has gone into shock, and yet has to keep things together for a birthday tea party. Mungiu shoots this scene in virtually one static tableau, with the family and neighbours crowded round the table, sneering at the irresponsibility of youth. Patriarchal dominance in the form of medical men remind Otilia of the awful scene she has just left behind. From her frightened perspective, everyone, from the hotel waiter to the receptionist, to the abortionist and the party guests, seems to adopt the same air of condemnation and judgement. The family party seems friendly and harmless at first, but soon becomes intensely suffocating for the young woman who suffers the experience as if in a traumatised trance, a controlled display of intimate desperation.
‘We’ll never speak of this again’, promise the protagonists at the end of their nightmare. As Xan Brooks remarked in his review of some of the best films of the first decade of the new millennium, the film comes with a ‘wider resonance – spotlighting the collective amnesia of those who lived through Ceausescu-era Romania and [who] are now keen to move on quickly, without a backward glance’ (2009). Those oppressive years seem to have shaped the world view of this director. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a lean, social realist masterpiece that put new Romanian cinema on the map and drew sharp attention to both the nastiness and kindness of human beings.
1. Winner of the Palme d’Or and FIPRESCI (critics) prize at Cannes Film Festival in 2007, and the Great Prize at the European Film Academy, Berlin, also in 2007.
[Country: Romania, Belgium. Production company: Mobra Films, Centrul National al Cinematografiei (CNC), Mindshare Media. Producers: Daniel Burlac, Cristian Mungiu, Oleg Mutu, Alex Teodorescu. Director: Cristian Mungiu. Screenwriters: Cristian Mungiu and Razvan Radulescu. Cinematographer: Oleg Mutu. Editor [including sound]: Dana Bunescu. Cast: Anamaria Marinca (Otilia), Laura Vasiliu (Ga˘bit¸a), Vlad Ivanov (Viarel ‘Domnu’ Bebe).]
Peter Bradshaw, ‘Review’, Guardian online, 11 Jan 2008, www.theguardian.com/film/2008/jan/ 11/worldcinema.drama (accessed 14 August 2013).
Xan Brooks, ‘Best Films of the Noughties’, Guardian online, 24 Dec 2009, www.theguardian.com/ film/filmblog/2009/dec/24/best-films-noughties-cristian-mungiu (accessed 14 August 2013).
Peter Hames (ed.), The Cinema of Central Europe, London, Wallflower Press, 2004.
Anne Jäckel, ‘France and Romanian Cinema, 1899–1999’, French Cultural Studies, 11, 33, 2000, 409–24.
Doru Pop, ‘The Grammar of the New Romanian Cinema’, Film and Media Studies, 3, 2010, 19–40.
Jay Weissberg, ‘Review: 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days’, Variety, 17 May 2007.
Source Credits: The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.