Wrenching, harrowing, breath-stopping, abysmal: I grasp for words to describe the central sequence of 4 Months but come up only with analogies. The scene, in its way, is as outrageous as the seduction of the grieving Anne, right over the casket, in Richard III; as pitilessly drawn-out, and clinically precise, as the death of Emma Bovary; as quietly, claustrophobically desperate as the breakdown in the elevator in Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman. Voices are raised, just once. At one moment only the camera lurches forward, and you find yourself staring into Bebe's hot face. Otherwise, the trap door opens with smooth, slow-motion efficiency, and a very long rope plays out.
And here's the most terrible part of it: once Otilia drops, she just keeps falling. There's no snap, no knowledge that the worst has already happened, because she next leaves Gabita behind, to go into the twilit streets and pretend to participate in ordinary life. She will sit at a table crowded with middle-aged strangers; she will listen to their seemingly endless conversation about potatoes, Easter eggs and the benefits of military conscription. Young people everywhere are driven crazy by such yammerers; but Otilia, in her moral vertigo, needs especially to get away from them and can't. She suffers through a solid eight minutes of their dinner party in a single relentless shot, followed immediately by seven minutes more of painful, one-on-one confrontation, before finally being able to rush back to the hotel. Whatever catastrophe might await her there she will prefer to this normality.
Note the showbiz canniness. For all the formal restraint that Mungiu exercises in this film--a restraint that extends to Marinca's inward-looking, furiously controlled performance and to the deep, steady gaze of Oleg Mutu's cinematography--4 Months features the ever-popular devices of a ticking clock, an overbearing villain and a heroine who might as well be tied to the railroad tracks. Sound familiar? These are the same crowd pleasers you find in that other post-Communist prizewinner, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others. An evaluation of 4 Months might as well begin here, with a comparison of the two films' uses of political melodrama.
I think the comparison goes in Mungiu's favor--not only because his style is so much more rigorous and thoughtful but because his melodrama takes place in a world that feels inhabited. Born in Romania in 1968, Mungiu was a student at the time his story takes place. He has even explained, in interviews, that in those days he knew a woman who went through an abortion like this. Out of this experience comes the sense of complicity in 4 Months--a complicity summed up in Otilia's final glance toward the audience. From The Lives of Others, though, you get congratulations. You, Western moviegoer, were never one of those bad, bad Communists; and if you had been, you'd emerge from the movie a good person, as certified by a filmmaker who has imagined East Germany but never lived in it. Thanks for the compliment, but I'll take fear and trembling over flattery.
To get a second standard of judgment, we might look at 4 Months in the context of other recent movies about abortion. This comparison doesn't take long. Mungiu's film holds up well against Claude Chabrol's exemplary Une Affaire des Femmes and Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, and as pure filmmaking it towers over Lasse Hallström's The Cider House Rules. That's about it for dramas. As for comedies, I can think only of Alexander Payne's Citizen Ruth and Todd Solondz's Palindromes (both special cases) before descending to Knocked Up and Juno. The latter film, I admit, has much to recommend it, but it still conforms to the pattern of contemporary American movies, in which abortion may be contemplated only for the sake of not being performed. Lovable characters come no closer to it than "shmashmortion" (as they say in Knocked Up). Mungiu's characters, however, have other things to do than be lovable--an industriousness that's entirely to their credit.
The last remaining comparison would be with the other films in Romania's purported new wave--which is to say, 4 Months has to pass the Death of Mr. Lazarescu test. Here, I think, it falls a little short, for reasons that go back to that absence of levity. Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu has all the fear and trembling, and all the outrage, of Mungiu's film; but at the same time (to quote a better critic than I, Ben Sonnenberg), "it's as funny as Beckett." It's this doubleness of emotion, far more than the protagonist's allegorical name, that allows everything in The Death of Mr. Lazarescu to seem greater than its circumstances. By contrast, what you see is what you get in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The film may share some of Mr. Lazarescu's traits--its long takes, its satirical edge--but in the end, it gives you gallows humor without the humor.
What a comfort to have it, though. Romania has produced a film as profoundly affecting and beautifully made as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and it's still not the best the country has to offer. For people who take their movies seriously, a quick course in Romanian might now be necessary--and so is a trip to the theater to see 4 Months. It may not be dragut, but it's awfully good.