4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a harrowing and deeply human portrait of friendship and loyalty in the face of oppression. The 2007 Cannes Palme d'Or winner is set in Communist Romania in the 1980s and tells the story of two young women, one pregnant, who arrange for an illegal abortion and handle the seemingly endless obstacles and complications that arise. The film’s setting imbues it with plenty of thematic depth, and director Cristian Mungiu has a clear political message in mind, but even divorced from its backdrop, 4 Months is a breathtaking, heartbreaking, and brilliantly crafted drama from one of Europe’s modern masters.
Mungiu blends the aesthetic sensibilities of different European arthouse auteurs to frame his disturbing, tense story in the most empathetic light possible. Utilizing cinéma vérité-style handheld cinematography perfected by the Dardenne brothers and distant, medium-long shots often found in Haneke’s work, he instills a unique sense of naturalism. The lack of editing, almost exclusive use of long takes, and his choice to forgo a score also helps it from feeling traditionally cinematic or manipulative. The entire film takes place in one day, and often we feel as if it’s unfolding in real-time. This gritty visual presentation perfectly complements the bleak material.
Anamaria Marinca in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, courtesy of BAC Films
The story sounds like a masochistic undertaking: Otilia has to deal with the issue after issue in securing an abortion for her friend Gabita until midway through when the inevitable meeting with the abortionist takes place and things take an even darker turn. The second half is where the film really excels. Mungiu places the most gut-wrenching sequence near the middle of the film then separates our two lead characters, ramping up the tension through a perfect use of off-screen space. The long sequence at a family dinner, where Otilia has to reckon with her guilt as she’s surrounded by trivial conversation, is as quietly devastating as anything else in the film. The burden of what she’s been through lingers over her like a cloud of dread during an otherwise innocuous gathering.
The quiet tension is brimming in every shot. We’re constantly anticipating what horrors are coming and dreading the impending consequences. Even the title implies a countdown to an inevitable explosion. It’s admirable that Mungiu avoids an easy climax or perfunctory emotional fallout, instead focusing on atmosphere and character. Gabita and Otilia are exceptionally well drawn and almost function as direct opposites; Otilia is warm, giving, and caring, while Gabita is mostly concerned with herself. Otilia’s devotion to her friend is both her biggest virtue and her downfall. Gabita’s selfish indifference to her friend’s willingness to sacrifice everything for her is heartbreaking.
Anamaria Marinca & Vlad Ivanov in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, courtesy of BAC Films
After all, we’ve been through with Otilia. The final scene is a double-edged sword. Like in his next two films, Beyond the Hills and Graduation, Mungiu ends 4 Months on a final shot which functions as a brief moment of respite, allowing the audience to finally exhale, but he simultaneously digs the knife deeper with bleakly ironic humor, forcing us to reflect on the emotional impact this grueling day has had on the characters. It’s a suitably haunting moment to close out the film.
Mungiu is building a career out of combining two distinct European cinematic styles: cold, detached voyeurism and immersive, empathetic naturalism. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is not only his best and most accomplished work, it’s one of the greatest films of the 21st century. The Criterion release features an abundance of special features, including interviews, alternate/deleted scenes, and the 2007 Cannes Film Festival press conference, but the beautiful 4K digital restoration alone is worth the price of admission.
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