Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest, and, now, Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days all advance the notion that time is of the essence in Romania. Set in 1987, two years before the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu, Mungiu’s Palm d’Or-winning film has the urgency of a ticking bomb. Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the snarl of red tape sticks to everything, and while the tone here is less sarcastic, the cumulative effect of the film’s long shots—triumphs of concentrated minutiae and heightened performance—are every bit as haunting.
Luminița Gheorghiu, who appears in the film in a small role, passes the humanist baton of The Death of Mr. Lazarescu to Anamaria Marinca, who transforms the desperate struggle of her character, a college girl trying to help her roommate secure an abortion, into a stirring expression of female solidarity and empathy. Twice Otilia (Marinca) is told that her tech major will keep her from “being sent to the country”; she’s heard it all before, and the look on her face suggests a girl both used to and resentful of having to navigate the cruelties of a bureaucratic system. Much of the story follows Otilia as she tries to secure a hotel room for her friend, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), and the film derives its disconcerting power from startling shifts in perspective and understated collisions of personality, as in the suffocating dinner conversation at the home of Otilia’s boyfriend, Adi (Alexandru Potocean).
Masters of horror should marvel at Mungiu’s canny deployment of red herrings: the pocketknife swiped by Otilia out of the abortionist’s briefcase in sudden fear, and the ID left by the man, Mr. Bee (Vlad Ivanov), at the hotel’s front desk, whose method of operation suggests that of a torture program. Otilia and Gabita’s fear of being caught shapes every frame, though abortion isn’t so much the subject of the film as it is a jumping-off point. Like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which is only outwardly about the difficulties of securing health care in modern-day Romania, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is an allegory that speaks to the struggles of freedom fighters gripped by the terror tactics of a political machine.