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Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days: The Stop Smiling Film Review

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu in IFC Films' 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days


Friday, February 08, 2008

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Directed by Cristian Mungiu
(IFC Films)

Reviewed by José Teodoro

It could be said that Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Romanian film that launched its successful international circulation with the coup of last year’s Palme d’Or, is a coming-of-age story. Set in Bucharest in 1989, the tail end of Ceausescu’s repressive regime, it traces a 24-hour period during which university student Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) undergoes a wildly hazardous illegal abortion with the indispensable aid of her friend and dormmate Otilia (the extraordinary Anamaria Marinca). Prompted by Gabita’s long-delayed decision, both women will experience an involuntary leap in maturity and will be sent reeling in what we can only presume from their conspiracy of silence will be separate trajectories.

Bearing comparison to the approach of the Dardenne brothers, the camerawork is handheld, patient, alert, dogged in its observation of tasks being arduously fulfilled. It’s a perfect strategy for facilitating the naturalistic emergence of subtly illuminating, unguarded bits of behavior like Gabita’s anxiously shaving her legs in anticipation of her procedure, an act that would feel almost perverse if not undertaken with such youthful naïveté. With Gabita being the more immature of the pair, among the many intriguing aspects of Mungiu’s narrative is that it’s her much put-upon best friend who constitutes the film’s center.

Mungiu tracks Otilia’s movements between hotels and meeting points, between the urges of her needy, unworldly boyfriend, the woefully dependent Gabita, and the condescending back alley abortionist with the gruesomely ironic name of Bebe (the disconcertingly blank-faced Vlad Ivanov). One of the most telling episodes in Otilia’s coming of age is in fact the most ostensibly innocuous: she leaves Gabita, post-procedure, to attend a birthday party for her boyfriend’s mother, where she sits surrounded by judgmental middle-class adults oblivious to Otilia’s activities, a congregation of possible role models more appetizing than Bebe, but only by default. It’s in this scene, where she can do little more than tolerate her hosts with a brave face, that Otilia’s accumulative turmoil seems to ascend silently toward its near-palpable, painful zenith, and along with it Mungiu’s portrait of a society in which a scenario such as Otilia and Gabita’s becomes appallingly commonplace.

The Academy’s failure to acknowledge 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days with a Best Foreign Film nomination is arguably the most embarrassing snub in a year with its fair share. With the inverse abundance of Oscar adoration given over to the more cheerful Juno, whose pregnant teenage heroine decides not to terminate, the critical consensus seems to have it that 4 Months is simply too grueling and, most especially, too rigorously pro-choice for the essentially conservative minds that dominate such decision-making. This conclusion is curiously presumptuous. Among the few significant attributes shared by Juno and 4 Months, which is more overtly about the politics of friendship than abortion, is a reluctance to burden its narrative with undue polemic. Though Juno finds its heroine choosing to carry her child to term — inspired by the simple revelation that her fetus already possesses fingernails — the emphasis lies squarely on her ability to make a choice, not on her championing of any pro-life sentiment.

That any choice is withheld from the women in 4 Months is, of course, the point, the fundamental determiner of their traumatic struggle. No episode in the film could possibly be mistaken for an endorsement of abortion, and Mungiu’s approach does not shy from the unnerving biological reality of Gabita’s fetus at its time of termination. Quite the contrary. One of the few moments where Mungiu’s camera fixes its gaze on a subject not related directly to either Gabita or Otilia’s movements is a scene where the aborted fetus, so disarmingly formed, so closely resembling a newborn baby, lies in a tiny, abandoned heap on the bathroom floor while the women are in the other room. In an earlier scene, Mungiu conspicuously declines any depiction of a sexual exchange, but here he makes a point of not wavering from the shot, holding an image that surely tests all but the most hardened audience members.

You’d think this would have the most militant anti-abortionists quietly cheering. After all, an image of a helpless fetus displaying its vulnerability for the camera has traditionally been chief amongst the propaganda tools employed for the pro-life cause — just recall the fevered response to the “hand of hope” photograph originally printed back in 1999 of a 21-week-old fetus grasping the finger of Dr. Joseph Bruner. The point is that it’s this very flexibility of interpretation that should rightfully earn the largest possible audience for 4 Months, a film whose brilliance and vitality lies in its ability to provoke reflection in any viewer, regardless of their feelings about its thorny theme.


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