Finding a Moral Center

The opening of Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days demands much by showing little. A half-full fish tank. Rising smoke. Clutter sprawled on a kitchen table. A hand reaches in, taps ash off the end of a cigarette, withdraws. This strange still life is viewed from a static mid-level position, through a gaze as dispassionate as that of a security camera. In this film, the opening says, it's the background that counts.

That first scene seems surprisingly quiet for a work that, after it won the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes festival, became known as "that Romanian film about abortion" -- a summation that seemed to reflect distaste for both critic favorites of obscure origin and heavy-breathing issue films. What's the next country with a freshly anointed "new wave?" And what daring sociopolitical issue will it tackle? Cynical art-house audiences were flapping their hands in horror.

Anyone watching 4 Months, however, will heave a sigh of relief that the film does not mug viewers for votes, nor does it read like a pile of field notes from an inscrutable land. 4 Months is staunchly non-polemical, its story inextricable from everyday details filmed with a stylized realism. The opening frames show little of what a more conventional film might depict in its establishing shots -- character, a distinct sense of place, a "beginning" to the story. But the scene's symbolic substance is made nearly too explicit through the fish tank and the disembodied hand holding a cigarette -- 4 Months traces the claustrophobia and alienation of relationships in a rotting system in a cinematic language as harsh as it is effective.

The lonely hand in the first frames belongs to Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), a mousily pretty tech student, jittery over her upcoming -- and illegal -- abortion. 4 Months is set in 1987, two years before the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, who established the devastating Decree 770 when he came to power in 1966. Determined to produce the booming population that could turn Romania into an industrial force, the dictator banned contraception and abortion for women under 40 who had not given birth to at least four children. Birthrates soared -- and so did the number of illegal abortions. Maternal mortality rates increased dramatically under Ceausescu, with illegal abortions accounting for more than 80 percent of the deaths.

Mungiu doesn't provide any of this backstory or political details about oppression under Ceausescu -- he doesn't need to. As with the opening shots, the story lies in the unexplained details: gas cut off in the evenings, the thriving black market trading in everything from cigarettes to Tic-Tacs, and particularly in the taut fear on the faces of Gabita and her roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), who has taken charge of her friend's dangerous mission.

In the 24-hour time frame of the film, Otilia runs a gauntlet of extreme risk and everyday humiliation, and it's difficult to say which will kill her first. She has to contend with casually cruel hotel clerks, a well-off boyfriend who demands her attendance at a family function, and worst of all -- the childish, piping Gabita and the brutish abortionist with the unironic name of Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov).

Mungiu doesn't excuse his characters for their behavior, but he's not interested in making paper villains out of the worst ones either. The sadistic hotel clerks don't know when their wages are coming through; Mr. Bebe is trying to deal with a querulous mother. Human relations reflect the perversions of the system -- even Mr. Bebe's vicious song-and-dance reveals his belief that his clients will play him for a fool.

What to make of Otilia, then? She rivets the film with her clenched-jaw selflessness, a stoicism that makes her attempts to hold on to her humanity all the more heroic. At the end of her hellish day, Otilia surely deserves a respite, or someone else to lean on, or even the relief of a breakdown. She denies herself the luxury of all these things, declaring to her boyfriend, "Don't worry, I won't rely on you." In lesser mouths, this might be a plea for rescue; from Otilia, it's just a bitter recognition that in her world, on this day at least, there is no one coming to save her, except herself.

4 Months moves with the mounting dread of a thriller, but still pauses long enough for moments that telegraph eternities: the way Gabita and Otilia crank on the faucets to drown out a nasty past or an even more monstrous present, the way that Otilia craves only Kent cigarettes but can't find a single one. The film's centerpiece is a masterful one -- a study in stillness, where nothing happens and everything does. Otilia has made it to her boyfriend's house, and is seated at the dinner table, surrounded by guests relishing the bluff insularity of their money and privilege. Disembodied hands dart in and out of the frame and conversation swirls around her -- she is only sitting, and yet we can't take our eyes off of her, a lifetime told in silence.

Mungiu ends his film with yet another scene at a table -- perhaps the only time he drops his admirable restraint. A plate of offal is placed on the table, a metaphor more heavy-handed than the opening image of the fish tank, and an unnecessary one. Mungiu has already made clear that almost everything in the world of 4 Months is dead, to be consumed or disposed of as necessary. Far more interesting is the question he seems to pose at the beginning -- in such a world, what will you become? Boneless like Gabita, malignant like Mr. Bebe, fat on favors like the dinner-party guests? Or someone else entirely? For all its seeming grimness, 4 Months is oddly optimistic in its imagining of Otilia -- that lone figure in the background, the silent moral center in a world that has fallen apart.

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