You just don’t expect Hollywood to produce a masterwork so early in the new year. And it hasn’t. This slice of celluloid dynamite comes from Romania, and what you see will floor you. Despite the title, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days speeds by in a single harrowing day. It grips you in a vise of suspense that Kiefer Sutherland couldn’t hope to match on 24, even with that show’s tricked-up editing. There are no tricks up the sleeve of writer-director Cristian Mungiu. Most of the time his camera hunkers down rock-steady and observes. The subject is humanity and its oppression. And like the best political films, its focus is intensely personal. Set in 1987 in the final days of Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship, the film begins in a college dorm where Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is trying to help her clueless roommate Gabita (the excellent Laura Vasiliu) arrange an abortion, strictly outlawed since 1966 under the communist regime. A prison sentence awaited not just the woman but anyone involved in aiding or abetting her. Mungiu estimates that by the fall of communism, as many as 500,000 women had died from botched abortions.
In short, the risks are enormous for both Otilia and Gabita, who can’t face the poverty of single-motherhood. Mungiu doesn’t preach, but he does lay out the grim details with unflinching honesty. The title refers to the exact time that Gabita has been pregnant, a fact she stupidly hides from the insidious abortionist Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) out of fear that he’ll think her too far along. Bebe visits her in a hotel room arranged for the so-called “probe.” Ivanov won the prize for best supporting actor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and with good reason. He’ll freeze your blood. Bebe is a tyrant, clinical in attitude, even when demanding sex from both women for his services.
Still, it’s after the abortion is over that the film’s thrill quotient goes into overdrive. Otilia reluctantly leaves Gabita in bed to have dinner with her boyfriend, Adi (Alex Potocean), and his parents and their noisy friends. The table scene, shot in close-up by the gifted cinematographer Oleg Mutu, traps Otilia in a sea of jabber. We know what she’s thinking, how she’s coming apart inside. There’s no way your nerves won’t be shattered as Otilia races back to Gabita and begins her terrifying odyssey to dispose of the (graphically displayed) fetus. Marinca gives the kind of performance awards are made for. This is great acting — ou can’t shake it. The same goes for the filmmaking. In a coda, set in the hotel restaurant, Mungiu gives us a moment to let the themes of the film resonate. He knows that in Romania today abortion is a common form of contraception and that being pro-choice doesn’t make him an advocate of the easy fix. It’s the tension between those two poles, movingly readable on Marinca’s face, that deepens the film’s meaning and raises it very close to the level of art.