Romania, 1987, before the fall of Communism. There's a thriving black market in luxury items like Tic Tacs, shampoo, cigarettes ... and birth control pills. For a woman for whom that side of the black market fails, there's a specialty sideline in illegal abortions.
It's downright Owellian is what it is, and it'd be hard to believe, maybe, if Romania hadn't actually been like this, and if this particular tale -- of a college student (Anamaria Marinca) who risks everything to arrange a secret black-market abortion for her roommate (Laura Vasiliu) -- wasn't based on fact, as writer-director-producer Cristian Mungiu explains in the bonus interview with him you'll find on the new DVD release of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, out recently from IFC Films. (In another bonus interview, cinematographer Oleg Mutu talks about how he re-created the desolate grayness of Romania past, and how he captured the grim but beautiful details of life then, which is among the most fascinating aspects of the film.)
The title refers to exactly how pregnant the roommate is, and hence how urgent her need for an abortion is, what with the cutoff dates that secret abortion doctors have, when the procedure gets too difficult to carry out in any location outside of a hospital (like in a hotel room sneakily checked into in a world where identity cards track citizens' every movement). And it drives the recklessness with which these women pursue their plan, the danger they put themselves in and the sacrifices they make to achieve it.
It's too easy to note that the world depicted here, seemingly safe in the past, is all too like what some would have us move to again: a society in which both birth control and abortion are illegal, and desperate women are all too readily put in impossible situations by men -- like the despicable doctor here (Vlad Ivanov) -- downright eager to take whatever advantage of these women they can. But it does make 4 Months harrowing and, in spots, terribly difficult to watch, not just for its historical veracity but for the awful promise it holds unless we're vigilant against it.
Happily, as a DVD package for fans of quality world cinema, this is a more easily enjoyable presentation -- it lends us a sense not just of a time and place foreign to us within the film itself, but also of how this film was received in its nation of origin.
Among the bonus material is a documentary by Sorin Avram called "1 Month with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," which follows the film on a tour of Romania after it won the Golden Palm award at Cannes in 2007. (It was the first Romanian film to do so.) This tour was an extraordinary thing, in fact, because in this nation of 20 million people, there are fewer than 50 movie theaters, and so hardly any opportunity for the people whom the film is about to see it otherwise. The chance to hear from ordinary moviegoers -- some of whom say they had not screen a movie on a big screen for 20 years -- talk about the impact this movie had on them offers an unusual insight for us.
We sophisticated American moviegoers are used to seeing foreign films, but we're not used to seeing them through the eyes of the culture that produced them. That's an amazing thing.
MaryAnn Johanson (email me)
film reviews and TV blogging at FlickFilosopher.com