Coloring the Mood

This unconventional story of an illegal abortion in communist Romania consistently builds tension

At a recent screening of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, writer/director Cristian Mungiu said that he was upset that his film was being thought of as an "abortion film." Which is kind of strange, since the vast majority of the film is about an abortion. It's pretty much the most abortion-y film I've ever seen.

4 Months takes place in communist Romania, which, like all communist countries depicted on film, exists in a permanent state of winter. Everything looks gray and industrial, except for the cars, which are tiny and rounded and colorful. Say what you want about Marxism, but it makes for some cute cars. But in general, cinematically, communist countries are bleak, and if movies are to be believed (and if Jurassic Park taught us anything, it's that movies are to be believed), the entire Soviet bloc was poorly lit.

So in this poorly lit, barren and intermittently cute landscape, we find Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), college roommates. Gabita has engaged in some poor planning, as she's accidentally become pregnant. In communist terms, her Central Committee didn't meet with her Agrarian Council before plowing. Gabita decides to have an abortion, which was tremendously illegal at that time and place.

Because Gabita is such a slacker, she can't even effectively arrange her own abortion. Luckily, her friend Otilia is both smarter and more loyal than she is, so Otilia winds up doing all of the hard work: meeting up with a sleazy black-market abortionist, finding a hotel room for the abortion and arranging the financing.

Actually, she has to arrange a lot more than just financing, as the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) turns out to be slimier than expected, and he demands sex as well as cash in return for his services. Perhaps he's just trying to grow the business, but it really ups his sleaze factor. If you treat abortions as foreplay, it's time to quit whatever frat you're in.

The film is shot with a handheld camera, and there are very few edits. Some of the action is covered by having the camera move about, but there are also several very long still shots. It appears that, in at least two of them, the camera is not on a tripod, but merely resting on some furniture in the scene.

I like the idea of the sustained, stationery shot, and the naturalness of having the camera move about and then simply come to rest without cutting is intriguing. Some of the shots are very well framed, including one from Gabita's POV as she lies on the bed, her legs forming a V at the bottom of the screen, while Otilia and the abortionist stand by.

Others are not as successful, and the film drags a bit as a result. It has an essentially European pace: Nothing happens for long stretches, and there's almost no action, unless you count an abortion as action, in which case, there's an extremely extended action sequence.

But Mungiu knows how to build tension even when very little is occurring. He also sets up, and then just lets drop, a number of elements that seemed designed to give the film some suspense. For example, the abortionist accidentally, and inexplicably, leaves his ID card behind, but then nothing is made of that. A switchblade appears, and then, in violation of standard cinematic technique, it simply vanishes from the story.

It's an interesting technique, and one assumes a purposeful attempt at playing with expectations, but with so little happening in the film, these also seem like wasted opportunities.

In the end, Mungiu redeems all the cinematic flaws with a perfectly executed, nourish sequence of a young woman, carrying a terrible package, running through dark, vaguely menacing streets. Finally, a plate of meat is eaten, and Otilia stares into the camera as if to say, "What were you expecting?"

If you were expecting anything like American-style filmmaking, then you weren't expecting this. If you were expecting an inventive, engaging film that consistently builds tension, then you win the prize. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a sort of Bad Day at Abortion Rock: There's really only one event, but it colors the mood and feeling of everyone and everything that it touches.

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