Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes Palm D’Or winning film isn’t a film at all. Imagine a movie drained of all the elements that make a movie great: smart dialogue, lively characters, dazzling cinematography, and even a taut three-act plot. Instead, it’s a drifting and initially obfuscatory film that starts off with a 20-minute sequence where blonde and wan Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) darts around her industrial town in 1980s Communist Romania fretting over the costs of soap, cigarettes, and a hotel room for her and her helpless college roommate Gabriela (Laura Vasiliu).
The purpose of her tense scavenger hunt slowly comes into focus when Otilia tracks down a blunt brick of a man named Domnu’Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). Bebe is here to give Gabriela an illegal abortion. And if that sounds shady in 2008 California, they’re at the mercy of the dictatorship of Nicolae and Elena Ceauşescu who banned condoms, criminalized abortion, and mandated that every woman have a child before 25. Under the best circumstances, for three days Gabriela must stay motionless in a rented room with a painful probe inside her and a plastic sheet below to catch all the blood. If all goes well, infection won’t set in, the hotel staff won’t get suspicious, and the fetus—too large to be flushed—can be thrown into an anonymous garbage chute. But if not, they’ll all end up in jail. And Bebe reminds the girls of that every chance he can to keep them in his debt.
With his stakes laid out, Mungiu puts the squeeze on Otilia. Choosing the best friend of the pregnant girl for the protagonist is an odd decision, but the more we know Gabriela, we realize she’s a listless, self-pitying bungler. Even when we’re aware of her fraught condition, we still want to reach through the screen and slap her. But by focusing on Gabriela’s roommate—the word “friend” is hardly used—Mungiu deepens the story from an unsparing look at female disempowerment under Communism to examine the bonds of protection and guilt that cause one person to sacrifice so much for another. After a horrifying scene with Bebe, we follow Otilia to her boyfriend’s mother’s birthday party. With it’s inane chitchat and obliviousness, it’s the last place she—and we—want to be, only her clueless, but caring boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean) was furious when she tried to dodge out of coming as his mom had made her a special meringue. We see their frustrating non-communication: he’s upset she spent the money he gave her for his mother’s bouquet; she’s blank-faced but seething at the dinner table as his mother’s friends prattle on about how easy the kids have it these days.
But as in many recent Romanian films like 12:08 East of Bucharest and The Death of Mister Lazarescu (for cineastes it’s the new Iran), the weight of insight is put on the audience. Is it growing up under the zipped-lips terror of dictatorship that makes these directors hold their tongues and shoot these naturalistic films with their flat, factual dialogue and pregnant pauses? There’s fascination in these still little dramas that feel more like voyeurism than cinema. And 4 Months is the most taciturn of the lot. Its avoidance of all questions we want it to confront like “Who and where is the father?” and “Why an abortion?” has the inverse power of making what could seem apolitical or underthought feel instead so grounded in politics and truth that it doesn’t even have to share them. Whether or not that’s true is open for interpretation. Male critics, oddly, listed Mungiu’s hushed award-winner more often than did women, which I think is a sign of it offering us silence as meaning while downplaying horrors; stopping just at the limit of male comfortability, this is the rare abortion film that affects men more than women. Yet while me and my female best friend were fixated on the screen, our anger wasn’t directed at the miseries of impregnation—we’ve known those fears since high school—but at the floaty way Gabriela takes advantage of Otilia’s loyalty, tossing off nothing more than casual apologies laced with guilt trips. Every word Gabriela whines has the subtext of “You’re not the pregnant one.” But as Mungiu quietly illustrates, women stick together because a cruel system threatens them all.