One of the most surprising successes of 2007 was Cristian Mingiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamini si 2 Zile). A film set in the Ceausescu period and detailing the events prior to an illegal abortion in a hotel may not have seemed like something that would instantly catch the imagination. However, the film won the Palme d’Or in Cannes so it’s worthwhile understanding the reasons for its success. First and foremost, Mingiu’s film benefits from the momentum and confidence created by the recent wave of reflective films that have seen Romania produce some of the most exhilarating and challenging of contemporary cinema anywhere in the world since 2001, notably The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Moartea domnului Lazarescu, 2005) Cristi Puiu’s Un Certain Regard winner and, also in Cannes, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Caméra d’Or 2006 winner 12:08 East of Bucharest (A Fost sau n-a fost?, 2006).
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in 1987 and two students, Otilia and Gabita, share the same room in a University dormitory of a nameless Romanian town. Otilia then books a cheap hotel room for three nights before she goes off to meet a mysterious man called Mr. Bebe. Gabita is pregnant and, with abortion being illegal, a very clandestine and painful set of events will take place over the next few days. The film doesn’t properly explain why Gabita has reached this late stage of her pregnancy for an abortion but, aside from the likely financial reasons, this creates the tension and urgency that make for a compelling story.
The idea of a nameless town in Romania being viewed from a safe vantage point of 20 years later is the only comfort zone for the viewer but, still, one can only find it both desperate and disturbing. For Otilia and Gabita it is a matter of ensuring an uncertain complicity within a social configuration entirely based on a power struggle with big risks and small resources. Otilia is forced to negotiate in order to overcome the state imposed criminality of the abortion and those seeking to benefit from her altruism. The hotel as a place of relaxation and enjoyment is here an unwelcoming and unforgiving refuge, a voluntary imprisonment at a high price.
Even though Gabita’s abortion is central to the story it is the limits imposed on Otilia’s movements and actions in walking a deadly tightrope which means we are aligned to her throughout the film. A regular young woman caught in an intense situation invites thoughts of how we would behave in such a situation. Otilia has to absorb the ambivalent emotions of complicity and resentment towards Mr. Bebe who, for a costly price, is vital in performing the abortion. Though Bebe is portrayed as the evil character of the film, he inhabits a more advanced stage of the survivalist world that Otilia finds herself in and therefore it is hard for us to pass moral judgments.
The stillness of the camera and the silent desperation of Otilia constantly invokes the feeling that something dramatic is about to happen. The camera opens the space up but then somehow conceals it, thus making the structure oscillatory, gravitational and claustrophobic and this is fundamental to the film’s structure. The characters maneuvers into screen space create a magnetism so that when they move off screen they are soon pulled into the frame again. As a result, the controversial scenes in the film, particularly towards the end, are not considered as grotesque in their explicitness; the refuting of any moral doctrine which may have been considerably precipitated from the outset in elements of the story which would normally be left off screen.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an ambivalent film to watch as it is ‘difficult’ in that the viewer needs to be attentive. The director never patronizes the audience but watching for nearly two hours means being active in a slow paced film, which is not easy. Though certainly far removed from the presumed, relaxed passivity of much cinema viewing, it is rewarding for those who make this engaging choice. Perhaps due to the urgency of the story, Cristian Mingiu doesn’t stop to think about questioning morality as the characters goals means they can’t afford to think about other implications. In fact, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is so self-contained that it does not even seem to need an audience but that makes its world all the more complete, all the more fascinating. It is an authentic snapshot of an era with a depressingly real scenario that we somehow cannot help being drawn into.
Steven Yates was born in 1968 and is a British freelance film journalist. He writes regularly for online film magazine Kamera and contributes to books and magazines for London based Wallflower Press, including the film periodical Vertigo. He is also an English language supervisor for the FIPRESCI website (www.fipresci.org).
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamini si 2 Zile, 2007)
Director Cristian Mingiu
Screenplay Cristian Mingiu
Original Story Cristian Mingiu
Producer Oleg Mutu, Cristian Mingiu, Alex Teodorescu
Director of Photography Oleg Mutu
Art Director Mihaela Poenaru
Costumes Dana Istrate
With Anamaria Marinca (Otilia), Laura Vasiliu (Gabita), Vlad Ivanov (Domnu’ Bebe), Alex Potocean (Adi), Luminita Gheorghiu (Doamna Radu), Adi Carauleanu (Dl. Radu)
Runtime 113 minutes