Cannesathon #1: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

When I walk on the street and I’m terribly bored, I like to play a game where I single out strangers around me, especially older people, and think about what their lives are like. If I passed by Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) in this fashion, I would be able to surmise that something horrible happened to her in the past, but has since moved on and has forgotten about it. But her body betrays the pain that still lingers within her soul, pain that her mind has tried to erase. And then we pass each other by, and she’s gone.

Now, I would never really get the chance to meet Otilia, because she lives in 1980s Romania, still under the iron grip of Ceausescu. Where you can’t go anywhere without your ID card, where there’s no market except a black market, and where abortions are illegal. But Otilia’s friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) needs one, and quickly. Because as the title tells us, she’s been procrastinating for a while.

In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, we observe each and every step of the abortion process: getting a hotel room, collecting the money they need and making contact with their underground surgeon, Mr. Bebe. Bebe, as played by the fantastic Vlad Ivanov, could have easily been portrayed as a slimy old lecher with spiky white hair, but instead we see Bebe as a normal man stuck in the same boat with the girls, making ends meet. Except he has a special skill. I wonder what his day job is.

Roger Ebert called Otilia and Gabita “the two most plausible characters I’ve seen in a while”, and this applies to the movie as a whole. The situation has pure melodramatic elements – a bleak Communist society, an illegal abortion that looks doomed to fail at the outset and the lengths Otilia has to go to help her dim witted friend – but the film never falls into treating the characters with heavy tragic weight, it sticks to being detached and objective in its observation of the events that happen. The girls treat this day like pulling a bandaid off a wound. Sure, it’ll hurt, but it has to be done. It’s a way of dealing with pain that pervades the film. Otilia asks Gabita after the abortion:

“Does that hurt?”
“Stings a bit. It hurt when he put it in.”

Notice the phrasing of that last line. It’s the same way Otilia feels at that moment, but the line is treated like all the others, there’s no dramatic punch to it.

The film also comes dangerously close to becoming a revenge story. As Otilia leaves the hotel to go to her boyfriend Adi’s house to meet his family, the receptionist calls her and hands over Bebe’s ID card, he left it behind. Now Otilia has his full name and his address, why doesn’t she go after him and claim revenge? Simple, because real life isn’t like Kill Bill (it’s also possible that Bebe left a fake ID card at the hotel so that he could sever any connection with what he did). A more exploitative movie like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo would have headed in that direction (but then Lisbeth Salander doesn’t need coincidence to facilitate her revenge).

Just as Ceausescu claims possession over the people of Romania, so do Gabita and Adi encircle Otilia in their own self-interests. Gabita wants to deal with the abortion as minimally as possible and gets Otilia to do all the heavy lifting, and makes decisions that affect her the least. She makes mistakes perennially, without thinking twice, and she will continue to make many more of them in the future, but Otilia can only help with the ones she makes in the present. When they think back over the other abortion surgeons they were aware of, Gabita points out that they chose Bebe because he was cheaper. If abortions were legal in Romania but much more expensive, Gabita would probably still choose Bebe to perform her own.

Adi on the other hand is insistent that Otilia come to his house in the evening, bringing the question of her love to the fore. He doesn’t care whether he does what she wants, he only says what she wants to hear and goes about doing his own thing. Otilia knows these things, but she just wants to get on with her life. She could easily burst into tears and scream at the world, but what good would that do her?

Cristian Mungiu directs a masterful film by treating his subject matter realistically and with an ear for natural dialog that makes this very close to a documentary. The camera is like a fly on the wall, and Mungiu intentionally doesn’t bother to make his characters be seen with perfect lighting and framing. Ira Glass said that the two key elements for storytelling are to have a set of events follow one after the other and to have a point at the end of the story, a climax for all the previous events to have meant something. 4 Months, 3 Weeks… has the first but not the second because real life doesn’t have sudden epiphanies or emotional crescendos. Instead, the girls decide never to talk about what happened ever again, it’s already a distant memory for them. What’s there to talk about?

Film: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Year it won: 2007
Director: Cristian Mungiu

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