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19 September 2015

4 luni 3 săptămâni și 2 zile (2007)

4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Directed by: Cristian Mungui
Starring: Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, 
Vlad Ivanov, Alexandru Potosean
My husband brought this film home from the library a week ago. I have been incredibly busy, and one look at the synopsis on the DVD cover led me to insist I wasn't going to watch it. It was not a film that I would consider 'entertaining'. Nevertheless, in a show of solidarity, I sat with him, working on my editing, while he watched. Ten minutes later, having caught a couple of scenes whenever I lifted my head, the film reeled me in, and I gave up all pretence of working.

The film begins abruptly; a young woman, smoking nervously responds with a measure of relief to a laconic 'Okay'. The second young woman now appears in the frame - she seems to be the one who is more sure of whatever it is they are planning to do. Soon, the second woman, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) leaves; she is too caught up with what she has to do, and too matter-of-fact to offer the reassurance that her friend, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) needs. 
Otilia makes her way to her boyfriend, Adi (Alexandru Potosean) from whom she borrows 300 lei. She doesn't tell him what it's for. Gabita has already given her 2700 lei. Adi asks her to buy some flowers for his mother's birthday; he will finish up late after his exams and won't have time to do so himself. Otilia doesn't want to go to his parents for dinner, but she's emotionally blackmailed into going. Her conversation with Adi is perfunctory; she has more important things to think about, and she cannot really confide in him. 

Leaving Adi to give his exams, she goes to a hotel where she enquires about a reservation for that evening. The room is reserved under 'Dragut' she tells the receptionist. They have no reservation under that name, however, and the receptionist is not very helpful. In Romania, the customer is never right, apparently. 

Otilia is nothing but resourceful however, and decides to try another hotel around the block. There, she manages to book a room, though at a higher rate than she'd expected to pay.  She calls Gabita to let her know that the room is theirs; now, she has to go meet a man. Someone she doesn't recognise and who doesn't recognise her. (We are still not told why.)
The man, a Mr Bebe (Vladimir Ivanova) is waiting in the street. He is not very happy to see Otilia; it was arranged that Gabita would come. He is even less happy to hear that Otilia has booked a room at the Tineretului. He had asked that she book either at the Uneria or the Moldova. Bebe has a lot of questions about Otilia's 'sister' and about Otilia herself. He has nothing to hide, he tells her, but trust is vital for what they are about to do. 

He is still upset when they reach the hotel room. They are at the wrong hotel; his ID card is at the reception; what if they are found out? It turns out that Gabita needs an abortion; she is in her third month already and can't wait any longer. Bebe, who knows his medicine even if he is not a doctor (we are not told if he is or not), warns her of all that can go wrong. They could go to prison for this, and he would get a longer sentence for doing the abortion. He tells them in no uncertain circumstances what to expect - pain, heavy bleeding, infection. 
If they have to call an ambulance, they are already halfway to prison, he tells them. There is no point in telling the authorities that she wasn't pregnant. All Gabita can do is to tell them she miscarried, but doesn't know how the miscarriage happened.

Then, he examines her. It turns out that she is not 'three months pregnant'. She is definitely further along than that. It is serious, he tells her; the procedures are different for the 4th month. Any further along than that, and the charge is murder. It is clear that Gabita is lying about her pregnancy - she knows she is at least four months pregnant, if not more. Otilia is a silent, and exasperated, observer. 

Gabita has not only forgotten the plastic sheet she was to bring, but also the extra money that Otilia had asked her to borrow. Bebe is very dispassionate - had he asked for money over the phone? How much did the girls think this would cost? That was just it - he hadn't said, and they had asked around. Everyone said it would cost around 3000 lei maximum. Well, then let 'them' do it, says Bebe. He wasn't doing this for the money; he was trying to help. Otilia is not sure she understands; what exactly is Bebe asking for? If Bebe doesn't state it explicitly, he still makes it clear what it is he expects. He will wait for their answer. 

Otilia is furious at Gabita - why did she say she was only two months pregnant? Now what do they do? Gabita is clear - Otilia doesn't have to do anything. The cards are stacked in Bebe's favour, however. Why should he put his life, his freedom on the line? How can he trust them when they say they will give him the rest of the money the next week? They can call him next week, then, when they have the money. Gabita is distraught. She can't let him leave; she needs him to do the procedure now. Pushed to the wall, Otilia capitulates.
Finally, the procedure, horrifyingly simple, is over, and Bebe is ready to go. It will take time, he warns Gabita, and she is not to move or remove the probe before her contractions begin. He tells them how to get rid of the foetus safely, and offers to take a look at her later if she has a fever or is in pain. 
Otilia still has to go to her boyfriend's mother's birthday party. She is not very happy at leaving Gabita alone, but she doesn't have a choice. After warning Gabita not to let anyone in, Otilia leaves. Much to Adi's chagrin, she's late, and she's forgotten to buy the flowers he asked her to buy.  His mother, however, greets her with warmth. 
His father introduces her to the other dinner guests, all friends of theirs. Otilia, already wound up by the day's events is in no mood for a dinner party. The guests, all doctors, all living a life of complacent mediocrity, are quite condescending towards what they see as the 'simple' people from the country. Otilia, who has one ear out for the sound of the telephone, has nothing in common with them, and it appears, with her boyfriend either. 
After the champagne is poured, the youngsters escape thankfully to Adi's room. There, Adi insists that Otilia tell him what is wrong. The ensuing conversation falls apart when Otilia wonders what would happen if she got pregnant. What can she expect from him? Adi is frustrated - how can he help if she doesn't tell him when she needs help? To Otilia, Adi's parents' friends and their annoying statements are but a reflection of Adi's own views. In this, she's probably doing him an injustice, but she is too overwrought to be fair.

There is nothing Adi can say to make things better. Otilia leaves without even saying goodbye to her hosts. By now, she is worried sick about Gabita, who hasn't answered the phone. When she opens the door to their room, she finds Gabita asleep after having aborted the foetus. 
Now all Otilia has to do is to get rid of it. Or is it that simple? 

Watching this movie was an emotionally draining experience. No, it is not a film that I would recommend for entertainment or even a pleasant couple of hours. It is one that keeps you pinned to the edge of your seat, your knuckles white, your teeth gritted, as you watch Otilia weave through a bleak narrative that turns darker by the minute. It is a film you relive in real time, feeling the protagonists' tensions even as you watch, horrified, as to how it all plays out on the screen. Even though abortion is central to the plot, the film isn't about abortion at all. If you want to stretch a point, I would say that it is about totalitarian regimes, oppressive social systems and their insane laws, and finally, about the dignity of women. It is a movie, too, about friendship, the sort of friendship where friends stand together, no matter what ordeals they have to go through. At the end, it is a movie where one girl questions whether, if cases were reversed, there would be anyone to stand up for her. 

4 luni 3 săptămâni și 2 zile is set in the late 1980s, when Romania still writhed under the brutal rule of its dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, a man who outlawed abortion in his country nearly twenty years earlier in order to counteract its falling birthrate. It is a place that we know very little about, a period that is, ironically, called 'the Golden Age' - a time of oppression and brutality that have left deep, searing wounds on a country and people, and a history that the world would prefer to forget, lest we call into doubt its sense of humanity. 

Everything about the film spells bleakness - the cinematography is stark, the colour palette shifting from drab greens and blues and fading away to dirty greys and even starker blacks, the camera following Otilia around cold, wet, parking lots and broken down buildings, even the lighting serving only to highlight the misery and despair in Ceausescu's Romania.   There is despair here, as we are invited to look at people's care-worn faces and their dreary lives, where they try to find comfort in clinging to some semblance of normality. It is Romania you are watching, in a place and time even Romanians would want to forget. 

There is a sense of horror that rises in us as we keep pace with Otilia, as she goes on her self-imposed tasks. When the price she's asked to pay is higher than she could have imagined, we feel her humiliation and her resigned, controlled fury. It all changes into clinical detachment as she is forced to go through the notions of socialising later, and the director winds us up to fever pitch once she leaves her boyfriend's home and proceeds to complete the task that has been imposed on her.  Where the film scores, at least in my opinion, is that even though we are voyeurs looking in on a horrific event that plays out in 24 hours, we are not invited to pass judgement on the morality of the characters' actions. Certainly, the film itself makes none.
The film is anchored by very strong performances from both the young women at the centre of the story. Anamaria's Otilia is the young woman who does everything she can for her friend, short of having an abortion herself. Even as she grows increasingly exasperated by Gabita, who appears to forget the most basic things and leans on Otilia for everything from borrowing the money for the abortion to booking the hotel room, from meeting the underground abortionist to getting rid of the foetus - yet, until the end, Otilia seems to think that having given her word to help, she should. Otilia's own life is almost derailed by being drawn into the consequences of her friend's personal choices.

Two scenes in particular stand out -  in the hotel room, where she is trying to persuade the 'doctor' to do the abortion as he promised; her voice rises and falls as she tries very hard to regain control of the situation. Then, she quietly turns away, and sits on the bed, removing her boots. 
The second, when she is at the dinner at her boyfriend's parents - as the conversation ebbs and swells around her, her tension is palpable. It is a long scene, the camera remaining stationary, as it frames Otilia sitting beside her boyfriend, offering polite, stilted responses as she wrestles with her anxiety over her friend, her own emotions at fever pitch as she imagines herself in that condition.
If Anamaria Marinca turns in a bravura performance as Otilia, Laura Vasiliu is not far behind as the completely ditsy Gabita. In her sheer cluelessness, Gabita is evil, perhaps more evil than Mr Bebe, who is simply callous and impersonal. And opportunistic. Once his price is met, Bebe does the job that he has come to do, leaves the women with medicines and offers to come back in case of an emergency. 

Gabita, on the other hand, is fully dependent on Otilia, even though she has to know that she is putting her friend in immense danger. Even Otilia's life may be at stake if she is found with the item she needs to dispose of. There is sheer indifference to Otilia's danger - Otilia returns, anxious and tired and finds Gabita sitting in the restaurant downstairs. ('What? I was starving!') The sheer exhaustion in Otilia's 'We're never going to talk of this again!'  and the camera panning to the women's faces before it fades leaves us wondering whether that relationship will survive the enormous burden that was placed on it. 
Laura plays Gabita with such delicacy - we are not sure whether her cluelessness is the result of her personal trauma, or if she is just so incredibly dense that nothing penetrates her self-absorption. In her penchant to lie whenever convenient, she is infuriating. It is her total ignorance, deliberate or otherwise, of the danger she is invoking on her friend that serves as the perfect foil to Otilia's heroism in the face of that danger.

If you want to know what real suspense can feel like, this movie offers it up in spades. There is not a single wasted shot, there is no music, sometimes there isn't any dialogue either. This is a film where the silences speak louder than words, where a shot of a squalid hotel room offers an essay on the conditions in which the protagonists live and strive to survive. Deservedly winning the Palme D'Or at Cannes, 4 luni 3 săptămâni și 2 zile is an emotionally gripping yet pitiless tale, sometimes violent, sometimes miserable, but one that haunts you long after you have watched it.

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