I could spot only one moment of levity in Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days; and having neglected to master Romanian, I didn't know why it was funny. It happened early in the film, in a scene where a college student in 1980s Bucharest was made to stand at a hotel reception desk as if she were an accused criminal pleading before the bench, when all she wanted was to rent a room for herself and a friend. "What's your friend called?" the clerk muttered in official displeasure, all the while fussing with her paperwork. "Dragut," the student replied. The clerk looked up sharply: another mark against the defendant. "That's her name," explained the student, with an apologetic shrug. "Dragut."
For all the insight it provided, that last subtitle might have read, "Comic misunderstanding here." So, after the screening, I trolled the Internet and to my delight pulled up an Anglo-Romanian website where young people advise one another on the translation of pickup lines. Who knew? Dragut can mean "cute." To the ears of petty authority, the name had sounded insubordinate.
My thanks to Romania's pickup artists, and best wishes for their continued success. I hope, though, that my web informants will be careful. If not, they may be left with an ordeal like the film's remaining 112 minutes.
For this is the story of an illegal abortion--or, more precisely, the story of one long day in the life of that student in the lobby, who risks helping a friend get an illegal abortion and then, under pressure, runs the even greater risk of abandoning her. When summarized, this action might sound like an anecdote. As realized by Mungiu, it's more of a paradox: a brilliant misery, photographed with such wide-eyed clarity, acted with such unwavering conviction and unfolding with such ever-deepening suspense that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days convincingly claimed the Palme d'Or at Cannes last year, followed by a string of other awards and festival invitations. Now the film is at last in theatrical release in the United States, allowing American moviegoers to experience its cool devastation, its calmly observed melodrama--and, most of all, its central character, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), the helping friend, who's stuck being the strong one in a society that wants her to be powerless.
At the very end, you see Otilia sitting late at night in a restaurant, as shown in one of the film's astonishing wide-screen, deep-
focus compositions; and as the shot is held and held, you slowly realize that reflections of car headlights are passing across the image. Posed at a window, Otilia is separated from you by a pane of glass--which I suppose links this scene with the film's opening shot, in which fish are shown swimming inside a little aquarium. Granted, Otilia breaks the symmetry of these first and last images when she finally glances through the glass, toward you; but despite this knowing gesture, she remains a creature on display.
You might think of this, too, as a paradox, since this specimen character, though exposed to the world's curiosity, has spent the entire film in clandestine activity. For late Communist Romania, though, this is no contradiction. In principle there are no secrets, since any lecture-hall monitor or hotel clerk is entitled to know Otilia's business; and in practice there are no secrets, since the whole country runs on illicit exchange, which is hidden in plain view.
Mungiu defines Romanian commerce early in the film, lightly if not with levity, when Otilia goes to buy a few toiletries for the chronically dependent Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) to prepare for her abortion. A decent bar of soap can be acquired in their dorm from a student who also deals in Tic Tacs and pirated videotapes. But decent cigarettes can't be found--even when Otilia tries another dorm room, where the black-market shoppers are shown in a wide band that stretches across the screen, as in one of Tina Barney's big domestic photographs. As you look at this array of people involved in their separate transactions, you see not so much corruption as a normal, daily imposture. Everyone relies on this supposedly nonexistent traffic. Even the judicial desk clerk manages not to notice the fellow who stands a few yards away in her lobby, selling packs of Kents from his overcoat.
It's from this incidental character that Otilia finally scores her cigarettes, in the last innocently dishonest transaction you will see in the film. After that, it's time for her and Gabita to negotiate with the abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), a balding, clenched, leather-jacketed, briefcase-bearing man of about 40, who is officially a criminal but exudes an authority of his own. He, too, is good at disapproval. No sooner does he have Otilia and Gabita locked inside their little hotel room with the oatmeal-colored walls than he begins to lecture them impatiently, with much waving of his open palm. You'd think his hand was a tray, holding out the common sense and superior experience that young women are too dumb to accept.
Unfortunately, he succeeds in educating them.