One needs to know before seeing 4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile what Romanians themselves know: that abortion (as well as the use of contraception) was illegal in Romania in 1987, during the Communist dictatorship of Nicolae Ceauşescu, who wished to maximize his country’s population, but it became legal shortly after revolution deposed (and executed) Ceauşescu in 1989, since which time abortion has become the primary form of birth control in Romania, where 70% of pregnancies end in abortion. Facts are of course open to interpretation, but the possibility exists that Romanian women, feeling that their lives were too long put on hold, now apply to abortion as a means of either pursuing unimpeded career paths or, simply, expressing their freedom, a cornerstone of which, in Romania as elsewhere, is the free exercise of reproductive rights. The point I am making presses: Most reviewers have confined their understanding of writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s film to the time in which it is set, 1987, ignoring the greater interest that arises when it is also seen as a reflection on the present.
This moody and stinging film takes an unexpected protagonist: not Gabita, the girl seeking an abortion, but her college roommate, Otilia, who takes over the black market arrangement as Gabita collapses into passivity, a reflection, perhaps, of her lack of political self-determination. A local reviewer, castigating the film, thus opines that “the motivations of the heroine are . . . implausibly selfless.” But they aren’t “selfless”; rather, they are unselfishly committed since Otilia knows that she is in the same political boat as her roommate, and the next time she herself may be in the hot seat. Indeed, the film includes a disturbing look at Otilia’s relationship with her boyfriend, Adi, who isn’t too sure, even, when Otilia normally has her period and who ignored her plea not to penetrate and come when they were recently in bed together. At least in Otilia’s view, this “mama’s boy” is all in love with her for the moment, heedless of what could prove the consequences for her of their sexual relationship. One of their quarrels hits this impasse: he argues that the fact that she isn’t pregnant like Gabita is all that matters; she thinks—and, yes, from the context we know what Otilia thinks—that it also matters that she could become pregnant. Adi wants what he wants when he wants it; beneath his soft mask, he is a pathetic little despot.
Mr. Bebe, the back-alley abortionist who extracts sexual favors in addition to an exhorbitant fee and treats clients as though they were prostitutes and he were their pimp, is without doubt a grotesque version of Adi—the version that lets the determining gender politics hang out. Bebe is the mirror in which we see the sense of male entitlement that motivates Adi as well. Bebe is the film’s most explosive personality—a reflection of what seediness and cruel exploitation become rampant when society doesn’t hitch its soul to the ideas of women’s equality or women’s rights. Reacting recklessly to the restrictions imposed on them under Ceauşescu, Romanian women, Mungiu may be saying, still are less than free, but wedded now to the illusion of freedom in a nation where male bias is supported by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.
Otilia’s frantic involvement in her roommate Gabita’s cause, which includes a descent into the bowels of the night in order to dispose of Gabita’s aborted fetus, is harrowing, to say the least. Regrettably, a bit of her running around reminded this viewer of an entirely superficial film: Tom Tykwer’s Lola Rennt (1998). There is also a laboriously directed stretch at Adi’s mother’s birthday party dinner that rings false. Otherwise, this is a gripping piece of work—and the long-held shot of the hotel bathroom floor on which the bloody aborted fetus appears in the foreground, challenging our eyes to look elsewhere in the frame, both bristles and staggers. Abortions should be clean, unlike the illegal one in this film. And even cleans ones ought not substitute for responsible birth control. But the choice has to be the woman’s; a woman must have the right to fix the destiny of her own body. Anything less is warped and inhuman.
Sergei M. Eisenstein, let me remind you, argued in The Old and the New (1929) that gender equality was essential for the prospects of the Soviet Union. That nation chose instead to fit its old patriarchic Russian hand in the new Bolshevik glove. It’s hard to determine all that went wrong with the U.S.S.R., but the Eisenstein film brims and spills over with such heartfelt clarity and hope—as if from another world.
Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days took the Palme d’Or, the world’s most prestigious film prize, at Cannes.
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