By Steven Boone
How many critics have praised 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days for its bracing drabness, its ugliness, its lack of style? This film about a young woman's adventure helping her best friend get an illegal abortion in '80s communist Romania is, in fact, more beautiful and stylized than a Mikhail Kalatozov-Busby Berkeley-Hype Williams three-way. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu's style is often referred to as deadpan, but that's probably only because there is no non-diegetic music to underline the expressive images. There is nothing deadpan about the sorrowful play of light or the strangled terror Mungiu pulls from urban ambient sounds. Critics, perhaps unaccustomed to visual music that isn't operatic or pop-grandiose, tend to slap the label cinéma-vérité on a film like 4 months (or the work of the Dardenne brothers) and be done with it. That's playing these films cheap.
4 months owes a lot of its impact to the brute force of its baby-killing premise, yes, but punchy scenarios don't bumrush Cannes the way this film did last year. Pure cinema does. This film's greatness has little to do with its blistering subject and everything to do with Mungiu's filmmaking. Mungiu could have made an erotic romance, a slasher flick or a children's reverie in these locations, in this nimbly subjective a voice, and Cannes would have been just as stunned. When will folks get off the genre/theme/literary values kick? This is 2008. A film like 4 months, made dirt cheap and feverishly re-written during shooting, is the work of a total filmmaker engaging with natural light, natural faces and the natural world. Somehow it's as steady on its feet as most films with 20 times its budget are flighty and insubstantial. That's the only kind of cinema worth respecting in the 21st century.
So, the girl takes her friend to get an abortion, something that could get them and the abortionist imprisoned. It is 1987, and life in the young women's barracks-like university dorm is all regimented chores and scrambling for/hustling contraband goods like cigarettes and candy. Mungiu tracks Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she attempts to book a hotel room for her friend Gabita's (Laura Vasiliu) procedure; to appease her middle class boyfriend who, unaware of Gabita's predicament, insists that she attend his mother's birthday party on the day of the procedure; and endures torturous negotiations and preparations with the black market abortionist, Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov).
Even though it's Gabita's pregnancy that's being terminated, through Mungiu's (and producer-cinematographer Oleg Mutu's) lens it is Otilia's hell. She makes some excruciating sacrifices to ensure that Gabita gets the abortion, and Gabita sometimes seems too dumb or oblivious to appreciate these efforts. Even when the camera looks away from Otilia's worst forfeit, we are right there with her in agony. Mungiu rehearsed these actors to the point of taking the "performance" out of their performances—a commendable achievement for any filmmaker, but I'm more in awe of the way Mutu's camera follows Otilia through pitch black city streets in search of a dumpster to deposit the dead baby, or the thump that the tiny corpse makes when landing at the bottom of an incinerator.
Why would I describe any of this terrible business as beautiful? Well, because it is alive and piercingly present-tense. Even the most horrific image in the entire film—a pan down to a dead fetus on a bathroom floor—packs as much astonishment and wonder at the miracle of life as the close-up of a live newborn in Werner Herzog's Stroszek. Mel Gibson, Gaspar Noé and other self-sainted camera clods should study how this film marvels at God's creation; weeps for those trapped in hell-on-earth (in this case, a Communist regime that seems to be turning its brightest youth into shadow economy criminals); and, in an epic dinner table scene, gasps at the variety of realities that can exist in one small room. But Mungiu is no evangelist or showman; he trusts the nervous/steady frame he puts around the natural world to tell us what's what, dramatically, morally, spiritually. He is the future, if your eyes will but listen.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl is Heavy and the publisher of Big Media Vandalism.