'4 Months' a great movie -- if you can get past tough subject matter (abortion)

Al Alexander

The most egregious omission from this year’s Oscar nominations had to be director Cristian Mungiu’s harrowing “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.”

Not only was it the best foreign language film of 2007, it was one of the best pictures period. The Cannes Film Festival agrees — the film scored the prestigious Palme d’Or in May.

So why was it good enough there but not here? One word: abortion.

Clearly, Americans want their movie pregnancies carried to full term, as evidenced by the huge successes of “Knocked Up,” “Waitress” and the current hit, “Juno.” 

Any mention of the A-word and audiences — and apparently Oscar voters — would rather divert their attention. As Mungiu’s film shows, it’s a tough subject — abortion kills not just fetuses, but occasionally mothers as well, especially in societies where women (most of them dirt poor) must go underground to procure the procedure.

Places like Romania in 1987. That’s where “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” is set, during the waning days of Ceausescu’s oppressive communist rule. It’s a particularly dark period for Mungiu’s native land, as hundreds, perhaps thousands of Romanian woman — many of them barely out of high school — died from shoddy procedures performed by sleazy, uncaring doctors.

Heavy stuff, to be sure, but Mungiu presents it with such raw, honest emotion, that you can’t help empathizing with the no-way-out predicament two young college roommates find themselves in after one of them becomes pregnant.

Seeing abortion as the only reasonable way out, the two women jump through hoops to arrange the illegal procedure in a country where your every move is monitored.

Which makes the sacrifices made by the pregnant girl’s best friend, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca in a career-making performance), all the more noble, as she selflessly abets the daft, child-like Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) in lining up a doctor, finding a place to do the procedure and, if necessary, dispose of the fetus.

Although, the film (performed in Romanian with English subtitles), takes no point of view, you instinctively find yourself in awe of Otilia’s bravery, especially when she’s called upon to commit unspeakable acts out of loyalty to her pal — and does it with little question.

Capturing every riveting, tension-filled minute of her 24-hour ordeal is director of photography Oleg Mutu (the much praised “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”), who effectively incorporates various techniques from jittery, hand-held cameras to static shots in which the camera remains steady for long periods as the actors move in out of the frame.

It’s a technique that renders almost unbearable suspense when Otilia is forced to momentarily slip away from Gabita’s side in order to attend a birthday party for her boyfriend’s mother. For long, agonizing minutes, Mutu keeps his camera trained on Marinca’s wonderfully expressive face, as Otilia’s mind runs wild with concern over her friend, while the snobby, condescending guests, many of whom, ironically enough, are in the medical profession, blabber on around her. 

It’s a powerful scene that says as much about Otilia’s devotion to Gabita as it does about an allegedly classless society in which “respected” doctors refuse to let their consciences be marred by the illicit backroom abortions they perform.

Physicians like the sleazy Dr. Bebe (a sensationally creepy Vlad Ivanov), the man Gabita hires for no other reason than that he charges the least. And, boy, does she get what she paid for.

From the moment Bebe enters the room, Ivanov sends shivers, and it’s not just because of the doc’s icy bedside manor. It’s something far more menacing, which only makes the girls all the more vulnerable.

It’s a scene that shakes you like no other. Well, no other until Otilia’s final act for a friend. How awful are these scenes? Let’s just say they make slasher porn look like “Mary Poppins.”

These are moments that genuinely make you squirm, as you begin questioning why you’re even watching. But that’s the point: Mungiu wants us to feel the anguish that countless Romanian women felt when they saw no other way out.

It’s a message delivered with a punch. “4 Month, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” is one of those films you just can’t shake. Nor would you want to; unless, of course, you’re an Oscar voter. But, then, what does the Academy know about great art? Obviously, nothing.

Grade: A

Not rated. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” contains intense and difficult scenes. In Romanian with English subtitles.