‘4, 3, 2’ is ‘more real than life itself’

Ever witness rape and abortion in a Romanian hotel room during Nicolae Ceausescu’s tyrannical reign? You’ll certainly feel like you have after viewing Christian Mungiu’s powerful 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4, 3, 2). In anti-IMAX style, Mungiu’s film comes uncomfortably close to transcending the voyeuristic nature of cinema and transplanting you into a dark, oppressive place far from the comforts of the movie theater. Told in real time with no music, unobtrusive edits, little camera movement and natural lighting, this film is so engaging that it generates conflicting emotions: do you run out of the theater because you feel so implicated, or stay and watch because it’s so gripping?

I first viewed 4, 3, 2 at last year’s Cannes Film Festival in France, where it won top prize, and I sat next to an old, burly Romanian man. The credits had rolled and I was ready to leave, but the man would not get out of his seat. I waited patiently for a while but finally gave in and politely asked him to excuse me. He stared at me for some time and finally remarked, in words weighed down with grief, “That was more real than life itself.”

Mungiu’s film takes place in the late 1980s toward the end of Nicolae Ceausescu’s rule of Communist Romania, when abortion was strictly prohibited and punishable by years in prison. Occurring in one tense day, the film documents Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) as she secures her university roommate’s illegal abortion. Her friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is four months pregnant and has arranged for an abortionist to terminate her pregnancy in a Bucharest hotel room. With Gabita too nervous to handle the situation, Otilia is obliged to pack the bags, find a hotel room, borrow money from her boyfriend and meet with the abortionist, a terrifying character named Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). The sun eventually sets on this cloudy Romanian day, making way for darkness and a plethora of metaphorical inferences about the direction in which this harrowing film goes once the abortion takes place.

Perhaps most impressive is the craft of 4, 3, 2. Marinca is tremendous in the leading role, internalizing the character’s emotional burden and letting it seep through in subtle, convincing ways. Equally powerful is Ivanov, who gradually peels off the counterfeit layers of his character to reveal an inner turmoil that parallels Gabita’s. But second-time director Mungiu – with the help of cinematographer Oleg Mutu – deserves the loudest applause for his thoroughly restrained direction, in which he often uses only one camera position per scene (sometimes we don’t even see the characters), forcing us to examine the frame rather than impressing us with it.

To describe this as an abortion film would be to ignore the subtleties of Mungiu’s creation. Although the plot does revolve around an abortion, the film becomes ever more interesting when looking at the three main characters in terms of Romania’s political regime. Gabita and Otilia, although both Romanian college women, may as well be polar opposites – Gabita is submissive, codependent and naïve, whereas Otilia is resourceful and forthright. Under Bebe’s despotic rule, these two women seem to embody contrasting options in an authoritarian state: passivity and resistance. And Bebe, a man who rapes women as part of his salary for aborting their babies and whose name adds to his irony, must represent the paradoxical ideologies of Ceausescu’s government, which outlawed abortions to increase the population only to cause the death of half a million women during closet procedures.

Political commentary aside, however, this film works on the most rudimentary human level. It explores the capacity of various relationships and proves that friendship can be equally durable, or perhaps – as confirmed by the fact that Garbita aborts her child and remains with Otilia – longer-lasting than kinship.