Cinema | Fetal Error: One misguided choice holds 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days back from cinematic perfection 

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How great can a film be if, during one pivotal moment, you don’t believe a character’s choice for a second? That’s the crucial challenge in assessing 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, writer/director Cristian Mungiu’s Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winner. As a piece of film craft, it’s mesmerizing, nearly every shot a textbook example of brilliant composition. Mungiu establishes a propulsive plot structure, and paints a fascinating portrait of Romanian society in the final years of Ceaucescu’s Communist rule. Throw in a terrific lead performance, and you should have a film for the ages.

Except for that one moment, where you’re asked to accept that our resourceful heroine is suddenly and arbitrarily a complete idiot.

Set in 1987 Romania, Mungiu’s film begins with college roommates Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) apparently preparing to take a trip. Their destination, however, isn’t some freewheeling spring break adventure—the film’s title, it gradually becomes evident, refers to a gestational accident that has befallen Gabita, and her friend is helping her to obtain an illegal abortion. Over the course of several anxious hours, Otilia sets up Gabita in a hotel room, meets with the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) and otherwise navigates a day that is both terrible and typical in its mundane frustrations.

From the outset, Mungiu does a magnificent job of capturing the film’s time and place. It’s a world of long, dark industrial hallways, with a black-marketeer on every corner (or at least in every dormitory). Otilia attempts to track down a professor’s preferred brand of cigarettes as a bribe for missing a class, and deals with the short-tempered service people who seem to think speaking with her at all is doing her a favor. And, if you think dealing with government agencies in this country is a bureaucratic nightmare, contemplate the hoops Otilia has to jump through—a nonstop baton relay of keys and IDs at the reception desk—just to rent a hotel room.

The milieu is fascinating enough, but it’s the way Mungiu sets us up in that world that’s so gripping. You won’t find many more astonishing examples of a director in complete control of what his camera shows us, and when. In one scene set in the hotel room, Mungiu fixes the shot so that only Gabita’s legs below the waist are visible on the bed, her entire being reduced to the status of her abdomen. Later, Otilia walks the streets late at night desperately hoping to find a ride home; the positioning of the camera on an overpass walkway turns the simple act of a woman trying to catch a bus into a minute of pure tension. And, in the film’s most simply gripping segment, Otilia endures an obligatory visit to her boyfriend’s home for his mother’s birthday party, virtually frozen in place as conversation buzzes around her, her own mind fixed on Gabita waiting helplessly for her to return to the hotel. The simple ringing of a telephone during that seven-minute static shot becomes almost unbearable.

Yes, in nearly every possible way, Mungiu appears in command of the film—except for that one ridiculous dramatic choice. We venture perilously close to spoiler territory here, addressing an interaction between the abortionist and the two women that grows increasingly horrifying only as the specifics of the transaction take shape. But the upshot of the buildup involves Otilia making a sacrifice on Gabita’s behalf—and if everything we know about Otilia makes any sense, there’s no way she does what she does for the reasons provided. Mungiu appears determined to make his protagonists’ already-wretched situation somehow more wretched—and in so doing, ends up violating his characters himself.

Had 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days not established itself so masterfully up to that point, and created such an engrossing story thereafter, this moment could have been a deal-breaker. Mungiu clearly wants to present the film’s era as a particular hardship for women, and suggests an extraordinary level of sisterhood required to deal with it. But there’s a line between “extraordinary” and “absurd,” and Mungiu crosses it. For just a few misguided minutes, he doesn’t appear to trust in the power of his simpler artistic decisions. The other 110 minutes show exactly why he should have.

4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS

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Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov
Not Rated

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