The extraordinary Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, more comfortably known as "that abortion movie that won this year's Palme d'Or," sheds its secrets slowly, a high-end realist drama quickening skillfully into a thriller. Though the frighteningly late-term abortion at its center hints at larger sins in the last gasp of Nicolae Ceausescu's iron-fisted regime, it's no metaphor, but a sordidly visceral transaction conducted in the next best thing to a back alley. Such a procedure, unfolding as graphically as it needs to without in any way exploiting its subject, its characters or its audience, might and does take place in any society where abortion is outlawed. This particular one also plays out as a devastating indictment of its sociopolitical context.
Like other young filmmakers of the Romanian new wave who are digging into the troubled history of their country under Communism, writer-director Cristian Mungiu keeps his head close to the ground of everyday life in all the drab tawdriness of a nanny state so intrusive, you can't even check into a hotel without someone demanding to know why you're there and what time you're coming home.
On its face, 4 Months is about an apparently ordinary day in the lives of two ordinary young women, college dormitory roommates who, as the movie opens, appear to be packing for a weekend away. You might also say, though Mungiu won't say it for you, that as they gather black-market toiletries and plan the day, the girls' responses to a coming crisis will represent two poles of personality shaped by totalitarian rule.
Childlike and passive, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is the girl most likely to get herself knocked up, ignore her swelling belly until it can no longer be covered up, then flap her hands and wait for someone to tell her what to do. That would be BFF Otilia (masterfully played by Anamaria Marinca), a resourceful fixer who calmly books one seedy hotel when she can't afford the bribe for another and meets up with the illegal abortionist about whom she knows nothing except that he comes vaguely recommended by another student. In one of several touches of deadpan black comedy, he's named Mr. Bebe, but as played with implacable calm by Vlad Ivanov, he's no joke. Bebe's a sinister manipulator who counters every plea with a hectoring question just vague enough to throw the girls off their guard, and, like any good black marketeer, he knows how to exact payment in kind. Trapped in frame by the steady gaze of cinematographer Oleg Mutu's camera, both girls will end up his victims, but in the movie's bleakest moments, it's the plucky one — 4 Months is Otilia's movie, not Gabita's — who pays the higher price. Small wonder that the camera so often shoots her from behind, or that her pale intensity mirrors the movie's shadowy, hyperrealist palette.
4 Months is the second film I've seen in the past year that matter-of-factly shows us a partially formed aborted fetus. The other is Tony Kaye's terrific documentary Lake of Fire, and it may be a hopeful sign of maturing attitudes toward this polarizing social issue that neither film grinds an ax or slides neatly onto one side of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. Lest you think you can guess, Mungiu points out in the production notes that where an appalling 500,000 women died as a result of illegal abortions before the fall of Communism, in Romania today, legalized abortion is widely used as a form of contraception. That, and the plate of organ meats offered to the girls in the movie's mordantly funny, ineffably sad conclusion, is a timely reminder not only that the decision to abort is not a lark, or a decision anyone but the woman can make, but that no one owns the copyright to the term "pro-life."