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3.5 out of 4 stars

Written by
Cristian Mungiu
Directed by
Cristian Mungiu
Starring
Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov
Classification
14A
Country
Romania
Language
Romanian

It's Romania, 1989, in the twilight of the Communist regime, when abortion is illegal but hardly unpractised, the custom merely having shifted to the usual butchers in the back alleys. 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days is the story (and the length) of one such pregnancy. And while this tale at the centre is gripping, it's really just the hub for an equally intriguing chronicle at the periphery. There, we get a prolonged look at the twisted norms of life in a totalitarian state, where grey is the dominant mood and lies are a daily necessity.

Opening with a prophetic close-up of a goldfish bowl, the film - a deserving Palme D'Or winner at last spring's Cannes festival - introduces us to a pair of young women swimming in their own tight circle. A student in a college dormitory, Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is timid, a bit dim and, nervously packing an overnight bag, the one with the problem that awaits its dangerous fix. Her roommate, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), is the friend in deed. Smart, efficient, practical, she's helping with the arrangements, buying some needed bribes from the dorm's black marketer and, eventually, heading out to book the required hotel room.

As she does, writer/director Cristian Mungiu establishes two signature techniques that recur throughout the picture. Outside on the drab streets, the camera revolves in a fluid arc around the characters, giving us a tour of the larger fishbowl - 360 degrees of unrelenting drabness. But in the interior scenes, during long sequences of conversation, the speakers are framed in held two shots, as if pinned under a permanent microscope. An early example sees Otilia dealing with an officious hotel clerk and seamlessly weaving her fabric of lies. Their exchange is fraught with tension, as the words dart and dance within the perfect stillness of the frame.

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This stylistic contrast, between the kinetic and the static, neatly reflects the theme, all that devious movement inside the narrow confines of an authoritarian prison. Although those held shots will occasionally try your patience, hang in, because the rewards are ample. In fact, the movie is at its most suspenseful when it's least in motion - Mungiu is masterful at generating tense excitement with a fixed and staring lens.

For instance, watch and listen when Otilia brings Bebe the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) to the hotel room, where Gabita awaits them. An ominous little man as hard, and as unreadable, as his clasped briefcase, Bebe outlines the procedure, explaining the medical and legal dangers. The issue of money is raised, but there's a sub-agenda on the table, an odious form of sexual barter that the insightful Otilia is quick to grasp. She, too, must make an irrevocable decision. Later, when Bebe inserts the "probe" to induce the bleeding, that static camera doesn't look away; the film's observant gaze is unflinching. It leaves Gabita to do with her unwanted fetus precisely what millions of Romanians are doing with their unwanted government: to "sit tight," expect pain and wait until it's expelled.

But, at this crucial point, Otilia leaves the bedside vigil, reluctantly obliged to attend a dinner party in the relatively affluent home of her boyfriend's parents. There follows another remarkably charged sequence. Off screen, the central drama unfolds invisibly yet palpably: What, we anxiously wonder, is Gabita's fate? Meanwhile, on screen, a peripheral drama simultaneously replaces and intensifies the main plot. As dinner gets served, a worried Otilia is surrounded by seemingly banal chatter that soon develops its own invidious subtext - quizzing her about her peasant roots, pulling snobbish rank, confirming that class distinctions are alive and as nasty as ever in this nominally classless society.

Yes, we do return to the hotel room, but I won't spoil the resolution, except to say that it, too, is unflinching and perfectly in keeping with a film that has no taste either for easy melodrama or cheap sentimentality. Of course, that level of realism places a large demand on the cast, and everyone here responds superbly - this is naturalistic acting at its allusive best. Certainly, Mungiu owes a debt to the recent flourishing of Romanian cinema, but he also seems to have taken inspiration from another Eastern European director, the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. His film has the same quiet resonance as Kieslowski's dark series of moral fables set in an immoral regime.

Because there is morality here, and it's exclusively invested in Otilia. She alone does what all the rest cannot: tell the requisite small lies without denying the larger truths. She is, as perhaps only a woman can be, a pragmatist who isn't cruel and a romantic who isn't blind.

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