Editor’s Warning: This movie review includes plot spoilers.
Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, winner of the Palme D’Or at Cannes, and currently in expanding release across the U.S., is set in the oppressive days of the Ceausescu regime in late 1980s Romania. Like many European films, 4 Months, a temporally compressed story of two women seeking an illegal abortion, effectively captures a certain mood of anomie and hopelessness. But this unadorned film, which does not even have a soundtrack, seeks to exhibit the disorder that the characters themselves cannot articulate. The surprising thing about the film is not just, as critics have noted, its direct and harrowing depiction of abortion, but its willingness to see abortion itself as a capital example of human degradation.
The film focuses on Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as they secure an illegal abortion for Gabita. Over the course of the film, Gabita does next to nothing. Yet her passivity is actively manipulative; she persuades Otilia to arrange all the details and then lies to the abortionist, Bebe (Vlad Ivanov), about Otilia, saying that she is her sister. Once in the hotel room where the abortion is to take place, Otilia is the one forced to pay Bebe by providing something other than money. This is a society of vampires and parasites, bent on possessing souls, controlling wills, and destroying lives.
The abortionist Bebe is curt and demanding. He chastises Gabita for registering at the wrong hotel and for neglecting to bring along her own plastic sheet. He then bluntly describes the procedure, which involves the insertion of a probe to initiate a process whose resolution could occur anywhere from two hours to two days later.
After Bebe departs, Otilia stays with Gabita for a while before leaving to attend the birthday party of her boyfriend. Becoming physically ill and emotionally detached from the dinner party, Otilia tries to reach Gabita by phone — but there is no answer. She hurries back to the hotel through dark, nearly deserted streets; with restrained use of a hand-held camera and spare lighting, the film at this point adopts what Mungiu calls “the rhythm of the thriller.” Otilia’s discovery of Gabita, groggy and disoriented but alive in bed, gives way to a more terrifying discovery of what Gabita has placed in the bathroom.
With its pervasive emotional emptiness and human desolation, 4 Months reflects the deprivations of human life under a brutal, bureaucratic regime. Given this context, it would be easy to see the sinister and hidden manner in which abortion must be procured as yet another repressed liberty in a totalitarian regime. Yet, 4 Months manages to sustain the possibility that abortion itself reflects and contributes to the degradation of human life, as symbolic of the barrenness of human interaction.
Abortion is more than mere metaphor, however. One pro-choice film critic describes 4 Months as the “most persuasive anti-abortion argument in any form I’ve ever heard, seen, or read.” In certain respects, this is a strange conclusion to reach: The filmmakers did not intend a pro-life film. Indeed, the production notes highlight the negative effects of the Romanian Communist ban on abortion in the late 1960s: Illegal abortions killed nearly half a million women. The notes go on to report on the post-Communist boom in abortions and the filmmakers proclaim the widespread popularity of abortion as a “method of contraception” in contemporary Romania.
Filmmakers have been willing to depict abortion as something ugly, even as a necessary evil in the face of tragic circumstances. Despite an increasingly explicit film culture, in which it is permissible — indeed, in certain genres, mandatory — to show every manner of torture and physical brutality, the direct portrayal of an aborted fetus is rare. The way in which this film depicts the consequences of the abortion packs a chilling, emotional wallop. At four months, three weeks, and two days, a fetus is unmistakably human — small, but human. Recognizing this fact, Gabita begs Otilia to “bury” rather than simply discard the dead baby.
As many film critics and cultural commentators have observed, abortion is once again a hot topic in film. But there is a difference this time. The pregnant, female leads in Bella, Waitress, Knocked Up, and Juno choose life over death and the results are happy, rather than tragic. Some observers speak of a pro-life turn in film and perhaps in popular culture. But, unlike the pro-choice propaganda film of 1999’s Cider House Rules, none of these films is ideologically driven and none argues directly that laws protecting abortion ought to be repealed. That is precisely what makes this turn so worthy of cultural notice.
4 Months is of course a very different film from the other 2007 releases treating the topic of abortion. The film calls to mind both Vera Drake, Mike Leigh’s film about an abortionist in 1950s England, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, a recent Romanian film whose somber depiction of a society largely indifferent to life and death mirrors the setting and mood of 4 months. But it is more powerful than either of these.
One of the chief deprivations in a totalitarian police state is imaginative and linguistic. The verbal communication in the film is always terse, often brittle, and typically narrowly pragmatic. The characters lack a vocabulary to describe their condition; indeed, they are for the most part void of longing to understand or to communicate. The silence itself, the physical revulsion in the face of an unspeakable act, has an artistic, emotional, and deeply moral impact. By giving a face to the voiceless victim of abortion, this film bespeaks the horror of an unspeakable act.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of the forthcoming book, Arts of Darkness.