No surprise that, after winning the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, Cristian Mungiu’s brilliant and brutal record of a day in the life of two distraught women failed to make even the Oscar short list of 10 for Best Foreign Language Film. It embodies everything the Academy shuns, especially in that gelded category: ambiguity, lack of closure, a refusal to judge, and an uncompromising regard for reality.
The opening title reads, “Romania 1987” — not a happy place. Caught at the end of a conversation (on the word “okay”), two young women in a college dorm room — Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) — are preparing for some kind of trip or excursion. They pack clothes, discuss needed toiletries, upcoming exams, boyfriends, a father’s visit. What they’re planning to do is never directly mentioned; whenever the word is about to be broached, there is, to use an unfortunate pun, a pregnant pause.
Unlike Knocked Up, however, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days does utter the “a” word. The first person to do so is the abortionist himself, the perversely named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov, with nuances of sleaze and menace). The two women have checked into a sad hotel where a lobby light blinks with a David Lynchian glee. In their room, Mr. Bebe truculently explains the details of the procedure to Gabita, his patient, who has been pregnant for, we presume, the title length of time. As the conversation continues, Mr. Bebe’s manner grows more like that of a police interrogator or an abusive husband, and he bullies the pair into agreeing to his price (which is also not specified by name). It’s a transaction with patriarchal power that can end only one way.
In retrospect, that scene can be admired as a technical tour de force. On the screen, though, it uncoils with the raw, explosive disorder of genuine experience. Shot mostly in a single take by an unmoving camera, with significant action and dialogue taking place outside the frame, it focuses on a single instance of conflict, oppression, and turmoil while hinting at a world of the same stretching out limitlessly from this one cheap hotel room.
Mungiu takes a similar approach to a long sequence later in the film. Compelled to attend a birthday party for the mother of her insensitive boyfriend, Otilia leaves the scene of the crime to enter another tense situation. Perched with torturous discomfort at the center of a dinner table, preoccupied with events across town, she endures largely in silence the crass exchanges and veiled insults of the petit bourgeois revelers. The absurdity of the event percolates with a sardonic, Eastern European humor. But the tension is pure Hitchcock, reminiscent of the tennis match in Strangers on a Train, where the public face of a social event must be maintained while something far more serious occurs off screen.