NOTE: Major spoilers ahead for an essential film of 21st century international cinema ahead. Seriously, it’s available on most streaming platforms. Go see it now, then read this piece.
It was considered a surprising upset at the time. The 60th Cannes Film Festival featured the most stacked Main Competition lineup in many years; with entries from world cinema titans like Quentin Tarantino, Julian Schnabel, Catherine Breillat, Béla Tarr, Wong Kar-wai, Gus Van Sant, Emir Kusturica, David Fincher, and what would eventually become an Oscar champion from Coen Brothers.
The Jury, presided over by Stephen Frears, awarded the coveted Palme d’Or to none of those films. They instead voted to award Cristian Mungiu, a young up-and-coming filmmaker on the strength of his microbudget sophomore feature 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. It takes place in Romania when it was still the Socialist Republic of Romania under the control of the Soviet Union. Otilia and Gabita are two college roommates. Gabita is pregnant. Abortion was still illegal back then.
There are no major time jumps or flashbacks. We have no idea how Gabita got pregnant or who the father is, because it doesn’t matter. We don’t know how they got into contact with Mr. Bebe, their churlish abortion doctor, and that too doesn’t matter. People in desperate circumstances will always find a way. What we do see over the course of 113 minutes is how these two young women, alone and hidden from their friends, classmates, and community, secure the services of an abortion provider over the course of a single night.
Right off the bat, things do not go according to plan. Otilia visits her boyfriend to borrow some money from him and is unexpectedly cajoled into visiting his family for dinner. Gabita makes a mistake in attempting to book the Unirea hotel and there is no reservation under either of their names, so Otilia has to pay a great deal more for a last-minute stay at the Tineretului. Mr. Bebe shows no generosity or leeway to these hiccups in their plan, berating Otilia not only for the change in venue but also for failing to produce Gabita to meet him face-to-face as he demanded. Otilia can’t assert herself or push back on his verbal abuse because he’s their only source of salvation in this desperate hour. He holds all the cards. So she endures his vicious attitude and subtle threats because she has no choice.
His demeanor only gets worse when he realizes Gabita lied about how far along she was in her pregnancy. Now in her fourth month, performing the procedure now carries a far more serious charge of Murder, not just Unlawful Termination of Pregnancy. So now, to secure his cooperation, the women have to pay him even more. With only the 3,000 lei on hand that they believed they were going to have to fork over, what else can they possibly offer him?
You already know the answer, of course. Even if you haven’t seen the movie and ignored my spoiler warning at the top, you already know the only thing they can possibly offer him to secure his agreement for this much riskier operation. When you’re a woman of impoverished financial means living in a country that has codified your status as a second-class human being into its laws, there really isn’t much of anything else you can offer to get what you need in times of desperation.
So they have sex with him, of course. And then he performs the procedure. On camera. In full view of the audience. Underground medical equipment is not exactly up to the highest standards of sanitation and calibration, but in this case, they’ll have to do. What other option is there in this situation? He then leaves them instructions on how to dispose of the fetus when it’s expelled from Gabita, and Otilia has to leave her alone to fulfill her promise to attend Adi’s dinner party.
I’ve heard complaints that the movie “drags” during this sequence; that there’s “no point to it.” They’re wrong. The conversations that play out during this party away from Gabita suffering alone in a hotel room are filled with subtle but revealing insights into the social and political dynamics that allowed this kind of horror to take place. Notice how condescendingly they refer to certain career paths Otilia is presented with, and how obsessed they are with young people “showing respect to their elders.” These elders, who have run Romania into the ground with their short-sighted, pig-headed agendas, consigning their progeny to a miserable future, who chatter away with small talk as their communist empire is collapsing around them (the Berlin Wall would fall just two years after the events of this movie), can’t imagine why Kids These Days don’t give a shit if they smoke in front of them or not.
Not that young men are all that much better, as Adi is revealed to be clueless in that way that most young heterosexual men so often are… including me at that age, to be fair. He expresses anti-abortion sentiments but is embarrassingly blindsided when Otilia demands to know how he’d react if he ever accidentally got her pregnant. Young men’s big talk falls apart when it becomes entangled in their lives. It’s hard to ignore or scapegoat something as soon as it’s no longer Someone Else’s Problem.
In the climactic scene, she returns to the hotel room to find a pale, exhausted Gabita on the bed… and an aborted fetus in the bathroom. Otilia wraps up the lifeless body, goes outside just before the dawn breaks, and dumps it into a trash chute. Communist Romania’s strict anti-abortion laws did not prevent this abortion. I doubt it prevented very many at all. Its laws only made abortions more dangerous, gruesome, and traumatic.
The final line, spoken by Otilia, speaks to the final pain inflicted on the two women:
“We’re never going to talk about this, okay?”
Romania’s ban on abortion subjugated women not just in reproductive autonomy, not just financially and medically, but in every way imaginable. The extortion and humiliation they’ve experienced must be buried and suffered alone. They cannot go to anyone for emotional catharsis or for healing. They cannot share their story with other women who may have experienced similar harrowing ordeals to terminate their pregnancies, which would foster a sense of solidarity. They are condemned to be their own secluded islands, sharing their pain only tacitly with a nation full of other women forced into silence, all under the guise of sexual purity and “protecting life.”
Joey Magidson and I have been discussing this film a lot lately, along with other abortion dramas Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Vera Drake, and the upcoming Happening, which won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival. Despite being produced in different countries, from filmmakers of varying aesthetic styles and life experiences, covering different time periods, we both agreed that three of these movies have had a deeply chilling effect on both of us (we’ll see about Happening in a few weeks). As if Cristian Mungiu, Eliza Hittman, and Mike Leigh were trying to show us a quiet horror experienced by more people than we realize, during times not very long ago, and may get so much worse due to generation’s collective complacency.
Watch this space. We’ll be returning to these movies again soon.