Washing my hands in the theater bathroom after watching the new film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007), I noticed I have a lot of gray hair. Maybe I should be grateful that the dim lighting in my house has been keeping this revelation from me. Somehow without my noticing, the blonde that has always lightened the brown has gone several shades lighter. The movie made me realize another subtle way that I’ve aged: it used to be, I’d watch a movie like this, about two women in their twenties, and identify with them. Now I wonder what I’d do if I were their mom.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is set in Romania, 1987, and follows a pair of friends over the course of a single day. It opens in their dorm room as they’re preparing for a trip; they don’t seem happy about it, but it’s easy at first to chalk their mood up to their living conditions: the dingy and crowded room; the talk of using Palmolive for shampoo; the hunt for cigarettes in black market shops operated out of other dorm rooms, where the girls can buy half-packets of birth control pills and nail polish, too. Gabriela frets about whether to bring her notes so that she can study while they’re away; Otilia tells her brusquely that there’ll be no time. Gabriela complains of a toothache, moans that her stomach feels weird; Otilia, tense and losing patience with her friend’s fretful inactivity, snaps at her. She goes over the plan for Gabriela: the money, the possibility of bribes, the meeting place, and it gradually becomes clear that the pair isn’t going on vacation, but arranging an abortion for Gabriela.
The movie depicts, unflinchingly, almost every step in the process of procuring an illegal abortion, from booking the hotel room across town to meeting with the abortionist, negotiating his fee, and figuring out how to dispose of the aborted fetus. It’s realistic and harrowing but never crosses the line to become gruesome or exploitative. All credit for that goes to writer and director Cristian Mungiu who skillfully keeps the film’s emphasis on the relationships between people — the two women, their friends, the abortionist — and not on the event that binds them this one afternoon. What happens is ultimately far less interesting than how people react to it, and so the filmmaker keeps the camera still, the dialogue spare, and gives us plenty of time to consider these women’s lives and how they’re changing.
The heart of the film to me, then, is not the procedure at its center, but the two meals which bookend it. The first is a birthday dinner. As Otilia moves through her morning making the final arrangements for the day, she meets her boyfriend, Adi, to borrow some money (she keeps the need secret). Adi insists that Otilia make an appearance at his mother’s birthday dinner that evening. He even gives her money to buy flowers: gladiolus, please, he says, 48 of them. The timing is terrible. Otilia knows that she’ll be with Gabriela, and doesn’t know how long the abortion will will take. But she promises, grudgingly, and later, after the abortionist has left the hotel room, Otilia tells her friend that she has to go out for an hour. Gabriela is shell-shocked, both from the awful negotiation with the abortionist and from the procedure itself, which leaves her now lying still, a probe inserted into her body, waiting for the abortion to begin. She asks for a glass of water. Otilia leaves the phone number and heads across town.
Adi chastises Otilia for being late, for failing to get the flowers, and she almost leaves right then, but his mom greets her warmly and invites her into the dining room. Otilia asks to make a phone call, she wants to check in on Gabriela, but the connection is cut off. She’s anxious about her friend, we’re anxious about her friend: the abortionist’s warnings about fever and infection, his angry accounting of dates that makes it clear Gabriela was well past her claimed two months pregnant and into the trickier timing of the film’s title, have increased the tension and made the looming specter of Gabriela’s death overshadow Otilia’s fear of arrest.
But there is a birthday to celebrate, and nothing for Otilia to do but let herself be swept into the dining room and seated at the table. She’s introduced to the family friends, all doctors and other professionals (one woman complains about how she’s introduced, “I’m always ‘the doctor’s wife,’ but I’m a chemist!”), but the camera stays tightly focused on Otilia, in the center of the shot, with Adi and his parents in the frame next to her, so we only hear the others’ voices, or occasionally see an arm reaching into the frame to pass a plate or pour another glass of wine. The table is crowded for the feast: small plates of snacks, fancy china serving platters and crystal bowls, a pitcher of juice, flowers, and candles. The couples talk about the food, how their mothers used to cook the same dishes, who cooked their potatoes with milk and who cooked them with butter. Adi’s mom complains fondly about cooking for Adi as a child; he was a picky eater, and she spent hours waiting in line to find food he would eat. One of the guests scoffs at this; “Kids have to learn, life is hard! My mother put polenta on the table, and whoever was quick got it.” “Look at them now,” another guest adds, “Dorms, grants, parents spoon feeding them.” Otilia keeps quiet, aware that debate is pointless; life was hard, life is hard. What has changed, really? The phone rings and she starts, but knows she can’t leave the table. It rings and rings, no one answering or reacting, until it finally falls quiet. Otilia ages as the long meal progresses, her expression a careful public mask with an occasional flicker of anxiety or anger cracking the veneer before she composes herself again. The camera never turns away, never gives Otilia or the viewer a break, insisting that we confront the tension of this experience quite literally head-on.
Otilia escapes the party at last and races across the dark city back to the hotel. Her journey unfolds in agonizing length, as she tries and fails to hail a cab, then walks fast, occasionally breaking into a run, gasping, out of breath. She finally catches a bus, but shifts nervously in her seat, unable to relax until she’s reassured about her friend. An ambulance is parked outside the hotel but when Otilia gets to the room she finds Gabriela lying in bed. “I got rid of it,” she says flatly. “It’s in the bathroom.”
It falls to the steadfast Otilia to dispose of her friend’s aborted fetus. The film follows her back out into the dismal night, the small bundle wrapped in towels inside her purse, as she wanders, uncertain, afraid, and emotionally spent. When she returns, she finds Gabriela sitting in the hotel restaurant, having a cigarette. “I was starving,” she says by way of explanation, then adds, “I think I have a fever.” Otilia feels her forehead and sits down across from her. Through rippled glass windows behind the pair, we see a wedding party, dancing, the blurred shapes spinning slow circles to muffled music. Gabriela asks, “Did you bury it?” “You know what we’re going to do?” Otilia finally answers, “We’re never going to talk about this, OK?” Gabriela starts paging listlessly through the menu, Otilia quiet, the dancers still turning in the background. Their relationship has changed; Gabriela has asked too much of her friend, exposed her to too much, and while they still sit together, we wonder if they will ever again share more than this sad, silenced history. Then Otilia looks directly at the camera for a beat — a hard, questioning look — and the film abruptly ends.
A more traditional film might try resolving these relationships, or at least give us the satisfaction of seeing the characters ask for sympathy. Maybe it would depict Otilia crying on Adi’s mom’s shoulder, or show more clearly where Gabriela and Otilia’s friendship will go from this day. But instead the film opens a wound and lets it bleed a bit. It leaves the women isolated, surrounded by celebrations but unable to participate in them; it leaves a viewer like me longing to reach them.
As I stood in the theater restroom after the movie, considering my unexpected yet entirely appropriate gray hairs, I thought about the safe distance between this story and mine: between San Francisco 2008 and Romania 1987; between my married, maternal life and my single, grad student twenties, when pregnancy would have veered my life into an unexpected track; between mothering sons and mothering daughters. I may never bridge the distance between these stories — to be honest, I wouldn’t want to — but I’m grateful for a film that makes us confront the distance, rather than pretend such stories don’t ever happen.