How Not to Have an Abortion

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Mobra Films

4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days.

In American romantic comedies like Knocked Up, Waitress and Juno, a woman's unwanted pregnancy is the springboard for sexual love, self-knowledge and, as she comes to term, the rosy maturity that Hollywood sees as motherhood. The word "abortion" is hardly spoken of; the procedure gets no serious consideration. Abortion is simply not an option for the heroines of these pictures, though it is for more than a million American women a year.

If a Republican becomes President this November, and if the Supreme Court keeps tilting toward the political starboard, it's possible (I don't want to say conceivable) that Roe v. Wade will be overturned and abortion made illegal in many states. The operation would again be entrusted to shady entrepreneurs and the desperate pregnant women themselves. Those who look forward to making abortion illegal must consider the effects of that ruling; women will still do it, but at a much higher risk of injury and trauma.

For an instructive dramatizing of the problem — and more important, for one of the strongest movies in recent years — they should see writer-director Christian Mungiu's Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It was the top prize-winner at Cannes last May, though, preposterously, it was not Oscar-nominated for best foreign-language film. No matter. Go see it. The movie is currently playing in just a few cities, but it's available on the pay-per-view service In Demand, on many Time Warner cable systems. You don't even have to leave home to catch up with this mini-masterpiece.

Mungiu sets his story in 1987, toward the exhausted end of the Ceausescu regime. Many freedoms were terminated during this despotic time, among them a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy. As J. Hoberman noted in The Village Voice: "Abortion was made illegal in Romania in 1966; by the time Ceausescu was overthrown 23 years later, an estimated half-million women had died as a result of botched illegal abortions. The nation's overflowing orphanages were notorious for their subhuman conditions."

In the late-'80s Romania of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days —a title whose meaning becomes clear only about halfway through the film — the burdens of Soviet-style dictatorship have imposed a gray pall on the country, putting most of the citizenry in a perpetually sour mood. Survival is a glum game of avoiding or appeasing the apparatchiks. The black market, for shampoo and Kent cigarettes, is on each street corner, in every college dormitory. That's where we meet Otilia (Annamaria Marinca), a smart, illusionless student, and her pretty, mopey roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu). Gabi is despondent for a reason: she's pregnant and is about to try to get, with Otilia's help, an abortion — illegal at the time in Romania.

Through the friend of a friend, Gabi has secured the name of someone who'll do the job: a man who calls himself Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Gabi is afraid of meeting him, so Otilia is forced to go on the errand, after borrowing some money from her own boyfriend. Mr. Bebe is an imposing fellow: solidly built and radiating macho menace — a solemn thug who thinks he's Brando's Stanley Kowalski. When he shows up at the hotel room the girls have taken, Bebe seems open enough: he lays out the procedure in blunt declarative sentences, Yet every soft-spoken word and compact gesture announces his threat to these women who need his services.

It happens that Gabita has bungled his instructions so completely, by not booking a room in the right hotel and not coming herself for the first meeting, that his rancor is almost justifiable. She has also lied to him about how the extent of her pregnancy, which promotes the operation he's to perform from a punishable offense to a possible murder charge. What price, the girls wonder, will Mr. Bebe charge for the abortion? His answer astonishes and sickens them.

Here you have a perfectly distilled three-character drama. Otilia is the smart one, the audience's surrogate, endangered by the rough Mr. Bebe and, even more so, by her dithery roommate. Gabi has constantly lied to Otilia or Bebe about almost everything: the meeting place, the money, certainly the extent of her pregnancy. She says it's two months, then three; you'll have to guess the actual time. Perhaps Gabi is afraid that no one will help her if she tells the truth; perhaps lying has got this pretty young woman this far, and, now, in this condition. But, in a way, both Bebe (who is risking 10 years in prison) and Otilia (who must suffer collateral damage from Bebe's demands) are the victims of the falsehoods Gabi hasn't bothered to think through. Stupidity, the film says, can be the greatest villainy.

In its visual style, the movie has a formal rigor familiar to the serious European cinema: just about every scene, no matter how long, is shot without cutting. (The nearly two-hour film has fewer than 70 shots.) That's often an enervating strategy, but here it works marvelously, either forcing two characters together as reluctant conspirators or isolating each in his or her predicament. Bebe's examination of Gabi, and his insertion of the syringe, is accomplished in one harrowing shot. There's a bustling scene, at the birthday party of Otilia's boyfriend's mother, that becomes a kind of tour de force — a 7-1/2min. take, with the careless gaiety of the celebrants making the girl's misery all the more palpable. The next shot, off the same duration, lays out the tensions between Otilia and her beau. The style may be minimalist, but in the best sense: Mungiu has stripped away anything not essential to the story.

That story is tautly, bravely acted, especially by Marinca, an ordinary-looking woman who rivets the camera's attention, and Ivanov, whose bulky poise makes him a figure to fear. More important, the tale is so compelling that it seduces viewers as a fairy tale does a child. They simply must know, as the plot knot coils tighter around the characters, What Happens Next. It's not spoiling anything to say that the resolution is right and realistic — and far from the ending Hollywood would devise, if it ever dared to make a movie like 4 Months.

What doesn't happen, at any time, is that Gabi says, "OK, forget about it, Mr. Bebe, I'm having the baby." Proceeding with her pregnancy is no more an option for Gabi than an abortion was to the cheerful women with their initially unwanted fetuses in the American movies. It's as if life in Romania is so soul-destroying that Gabi doesn't want to bring another soul into it. Which may be the one thoughtful decision this immature young woman ever made.

— This review is an expansion of a dispatch from last year's Cannes Film Festival written by Mary Corliss and Richard Corliss