By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on February 16, 2008)
There was a great film that came out four years ago called Maria Full of Grace. The story was a simple narrative about a young, pregnant Columbian woman who hires herself out as a U.S.-bound drug mule in a desperate bid to escape her bleak, poverty-ridden existence. It wasn’t a horror film. It didn’t scream “tension and suspense just ahead!” with ominous musical cues. It was quietly observant and presented with “life-as-it-happens” nonchalance. Yet it was one of the most harrowing nail-biters I have ever squirmed through. However, when I let my breath out at the end of Cristian Mungiu’s 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, I realized that Maria just met her match.
Mungiu wrote and directed this stark drama, set in the late 1980s, during Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s oppressive regime. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) are friends who share a university dorm in Bucharest. From the get-go, we can see that these two aren’t your typically happy-go-lucky coeds. In fact, none of the students on campus seem quick to smile; they vibe a palpable sense of lowered expectations for the future, and that air of innate mistrust that tends to fester in a totalitarian police state.
Gabita is pregnant, and wants an abortion. Even though this story is set only 20 years ago, Gabita may as well wished for world peace and a million dollars in a Swiss bank account. In 1966, Ceausescu decreed abortion as a state crime in Romania, making exceptions only for women over the age of 42, and only if they had already mothered a requisite number of children. He also imposed a steep tax penalty, garnished on the income of any childless woman or man over the age of 25, single or married (he was a real piece of work).
Otilia agrees to help. She secures a hotel room, and makes arrangements with a shady abortionist, Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Once Gabita, Otilia and Bebe converge, an increasingly nightmarish and heart-pounding scenario proceeds to unfold for the remaining three-quarters of the film.
The most gripping moments occur in the hotel room, particularly a scene where the creepy Bebe forces a reprehensible act of extortion on the two women prior to performing the abortion. If you are squeamish, you may not make it all the way through this portion of the film. The unblinking realism of Mungiu’s vision demands full commitment on part of the viewer; sensitive souls may want to avoid the film altogether. When I say “unblinking”, that’s not code for “exploitative”; there is nothing exploitative or “sexy” going on here.
Mungiu doesn’t proselytize one way or the other about the right-to-life issue; that element is merely incidental to the crux of the film, which is showing us what it’s like to live in mortal fear of one’s own government. It’s the little brush strokes that combine to paint an incisive portrait of an oppressed society. For instance, the simple act of booking a hotel room essentially becomes a white-knuckled interrogation scene; the officiously bureaucratic hotel clerk eyes Otilia suspiciously and demands to know why she and her roommate would need a room when they already live in a dorm. Everyone in this society appears to be afflicted by a chronic sense of paranoia.
This is one of those films that you find yourself thinking about long after the credits roll; the significance of certain scenes doesn’t sink in completely until you have had some time to digest. One such scene for me is when Otilia has to abandon Gabita in the hotel room to attend a dinner (so as to not arouse suspicions). There is a static, 7-minute shot of the dinner table, where Otilia sits center frame, not able to explain the real reason she is not eating (at that point, we have also lost our appetite, after what happened in that hotel room).
She says very little, other than a few perfunctory pleasantries, while the other dinner guests laugh and prattle on about mundane matters, proposing endless toasts and heaping second portions onto their plates (a few stuffy guests dismiss Otilia’s behavior at the table with some passive-aggressive inferences that it must have something to do with her lower-class upbringing). With nary a word of dialogue to utter for several pages of script, actress Anamaria Marinca nonetheless holds your rapt attention for the duration; her facial expressions flagging her inner turmoil and the concern for Gabita back at the hotel. It’s an amazing piece of acting and an inspired gamble by director Mungiu that pays off in spades.
I also have to single out Vlad Ivanov’s intense performance as Bebe. He’s so effectively convincing (and genuinely disturbing) as a quietly menacing, repugnant heavy that it is easy to overlook the fact that it is a quite a turn on the actor’s part and must be commended.
4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days may not exactly be a romp in the fields, but it is a worthwhile 1 hour, 53 minutes for the thinking person; and depending on your degree of cynicism about our own state of affairs over these past 7 years…it can also be viewed as a cautionary tale.