Immediately after watching the 2007 Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, I went to the AV Club’s Inventory of great films too painful to watch twice, to see if it was on the list. It isn’t, but oh man, it sure should be. Cristian Mungiu’s film is masterfully executed and riveted me to the screen, but I’ll be fairly happy if I never see it again.
The film deals with two young women living as students in Romania in 1987, at the height of the communist regime there. One if them needs an abortion, but it’s not easy because that is a crime which would land both patient and doctor in prison if discovered. Yes, I did just spoil a plot point for those Movie Klubbers who did not see the movie, but knowing that beforehand will not ruin any of the tension in this film. In fact you kind of have to know about the abortion beforehand, because otherwise the tension in this movie could well reach intolerable levels.
Much like last week’s Children of Men, Mungiu builds his film around a series of staggeringly long takes. Unlike Children of Men, though, there is almost no action going on in Mungiu’s long takes. He chooses an element in each scene and holds on it for an incredibly long period, even while other characters are speaking or acting outside of the frame. He holds and holds, in some cases for so long that the shot almost becomes boring and mundane – much in the same way that living in fear might have become mundane for Romanians, I suppose.
The result of this is a tense mood that’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie. It captures the feeling of living under a Stalinist dictatorship much better than any movie made during the Cold War – the ideas that every conversation is a horrific prison term waiting to happen, and even people close to you may not be trusted. Many scenes which would have been achingly dull during an American film are dripping with tension. The only problem is, that much tension compressed into two hours is difficult to take. There were stories at Movie Klub of people made ill from stress during the movie’s theatrical run.
Another result from the long-take shooting style is that, almost by accident, it creates the most even-handed film about abortion that I’ve ever seen. I could imagine certain scenes in this film being appropriated by Planned Parenthood to explain why abortion must be legal, and I could imagine an equal amount of scenes being used by an Operation Rescue-type organization as an accusation that the process is a sin against God. Just like his camera, Mungiu feels first and foremost that he should hold on this subject all the way through without looking away and without judging. He understands that these characters are judging each other intensely enough already.
I don’t like to judge writing or acting in a language that I don’t speak and can’t even begin to comprehend – you never know exactly how accurate the subtitles are – but I will say this: I really like Anamaria Marinca’s ability to do nothing. Nothing is actually one of the hardest things for an actor to do, because acting is all about letting the audience know that you’re there. In several scenes, Marinca knows the camera is on her and will remain on her for some time while other actors are talking and moving, but she does not feel the need to add any “actorly” tics to her performance (for example, Kristen Stewart spends most of Adventureland playing with her hair). It’s impressive and it’s certainly not easy.
My major complaint with the film is that the actual woman receiving the abortion (Laura Vasiliu) seems more like a plot point than a person. Rather like Gael Garcia Bernal in Babel, who was clearly playing The Unreliable Cousin, Vasiliu’s character is written and played as The Unreliable Best Friend. You could argue that her fragility is a part of the psychological stigma of needing an illegal abortion, but the movie does not even bother to suggest that. Her instability is a plot point and nothing more.
Still, that’s a pretty small complaint for a film this intense. Don’t seek out 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days if you dislike movies so involving that they wrench your gut with tension. Do seek it out if you love thrillers that inflect every line of their dialogue with conflict. Either way, you may not want to see it a second time.
Reviewed by Mark Young