I once talked someone who was very close to me into an abortion. She was between husbands, not for the first time, and she already had three kids, the oldest of whom was 8. I just didn't see how she could manage another child, so I did a sales job on her. I told her it was a simple procedure, that she'd be back to normal in a day or so, that she wouldn't burn in hell. I even set up her first appointment. And when the big day arrived, I drove her to the clinic, her kids squeezed into the back seat. Because she didn't want them to come inside, I agreed to stay with them in the car while she went in by herself. I should have known something was up. When she came back, sooner than she should have, she had a funny look on her face. "I couldn't do it," she said. "I just couldn't do it." Twenty-five years later, her daughter has a daughter of her own.
That's just one of the countless stories from the long, tortured history of abortion in this country and around the world, but I couldn't help thinking about it while watching 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Christian Mungiu's quietly harrowing account of an abortion that's a little more eventful than the one I had in mind. I don't just mean the procedure itself. I mean the hours leading up to it and the hour or so afterwards. Set in Romania during the last hurrahs of the Ceausescu regime, which still had a tight grip on everything, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a long day's journey into night, a descent into hell, but with glimpses of heaven. And it's told in such a way as to convince us that everything's really happening. Scenes go on forever, but the plot keeps racing along, like a thriller's. Consequently, time both speeds up and stands still. And the camera, when it moves, does a herky-jerky number - life on the fly.
It opens, rather unpromisingly, with a scene in a college dorm room where two dorm roommates are preparing for a trip. Only gradually do we realize what trip they're preparing for. In the meantime, writer-director Mungiu is giving us clues to what it's like to live in a totalitarian society. The most basic needs - shampoo, for example - have to be bartered for. And everybody's in your business, either that or they don't even look up when you ask them for help. Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) needs help. She's either two or three months pregnant, even longer if you think the movie's title is trying to tell us something. And abortion, in Romania, is a crime, which doesn't prevent abortions, of course, just sends them underground. Gabita has supposedly made the arrangements for her, but even on the best of days she isn't exactly a take-charge kind of gal. That's where her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), comes in.
With her lank blond hair and rather inexpressive face, Marinca doesn't exactly light up the screen. And Mungiu keeps his distance from her, rarely if ever resorting to close-ups. But she sneaks up on you, as Helen Mirren often does. And it's her movie all the way, when you get right down to it. Basically, Otilia has to do everything - borrow the money, meet with the abortionist, tend to Gabita like a nurse. When the first hotel falls through, she has to secure another one, and there's a slight no-room-in-the-inn feeling. Otherwise, the movie's free of religious overtones, and it never tips its hat, for or against abortion. We're supposed to see it simply as a fact of life, something that's always happened and always will. Of course, it can be a rather ugly fact of life under the wrong circumstances. And although Gabita's procedure doesn't take place in a back alley, it's basically a back-alley abortion.
The abortionist, when he shows up, seems all business. But he's understandably wary, and when he realizes that Gabita is more than a little bit pregnant, the mood in the room changes. I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that both Gabita and Otilia wind up paying a higher price than they'd expected, which turns Otilia into something of a saint. If the movie has a flaw, it's that Mungiu never completely reveals why Otilia is so devoted to Gabita. Because a friend in need is a friend indeed? Because Gabita is so helpless? Because it might happen to Otilia someday? What she gradually realizes, as things slide farther and farther out of whack, is that the deck's clearly stacked against women in this communist utopia. And there's no one to turn to. It's like everybody works for the government, because nobody wants to run afoul of the government. Big Brother is you, watching.
Like The Lives of Others and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is ultimately about what it's like to live under oppression. But to those of us in the West, it's basically an abortion movie. With the repeal of Roe v. Wade a mere Supreme Court appointment away, Hollywood's been turning out unwanted-pregnancy movies that skirt the issue rather than confront it head-on. Knocked Up, Waitress, Juno - correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm not sure any of them even say the word. But here's a movie that refuses to turn away from a situation that gets a whole lot worse before it starts to get better. It's shot in very drab shades of gray, and no one ever laughs or even smiles, and yet there's more life in this thing than in any number of Hollywood fantasies. And more hope. Why does Otilia escort Gabita through her ordeal? Maybe because women have to stick together. Solidarity forever.