It’s not every day you watch a film because of what’s in the news.
I first watched Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days probably around 2012 when it was streaming on Netflix. This was back when Netflix carried good content, and often I would peruse foreign, independent films that would give a glimpse into different cultures and times. This is one of those films, which now is streaming on The Criterion Channel. Upon watching, I recall thinking how horrible it must have been to live in a time not that long ago (1987) when abortion was unavailable and punishable by law. Then, on Friday, June 24, 2022, Roe v. Wade was overturned in a 5-4 Supreme Court vote in the United States. A constitutional right had been taken, thereby leaving many women feeling helpless, government-owned, and less of a person. Now, the events that unfold within 4 Months are very much a reality.
Cristian Mungiu directs this 2007 Romanian film that is very forward-moving and well-acted. Taking place over 24 hours, there are no fancy shots, and the cinematography is rather stark. The era evokes oppression, both by the people who perfunctorily move about, and how the landscape seems to contain them—consisting of rundown flats stacked upon one another. The story is simple: two college girls live together and one (Gabita, played by Laura Vasiliu) has fallen pregnant. She needs an abortion, but what does one do when it is illegal? Her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) helps her—a bit too much, in fact. They secure a room in the city, but barely. They have a man come to perform it, but not before an ‘arrangement’ is worked out. The abortion is successful and the fetus is disposed of. The women then agree to never speak about it.
One would think a film about a secret abortion would be about the person undergoing the abortion, but instead it is about her friend Otilia. As Roger Ebert notes in his review, Gabita ‘turns in desperation to her roommate Otilia, who agrees to help her, and does. Helps her so much, indeed, she does everything but have the abortion herself.’ His words are true, as Gabita is clueless. To start, she tells Otilia that she secured a room in the city, but she fails to follow up with the reservation and so the room gets released to someone else. (This leaves Otilia with the burden of finding a new room on short notice.) The man performing the procedure is a creep Gabita calls on someone’s recommendation. When he arrives, Gabita informs that she’s forgotten to bring the plastic sheets. She also fails to meet him as instructed, whereupon this task is left to Otilia. She also doesn’t know how far long she is in her pregnancy. One would think that undergoing trauma would at least lead her to pay attention. It is hard to know if Gabita is just dumb or selfish, but regardless, the outcome is the same. Otilia, by default, is forced to undertake the brunt of her friend’s burden.
Likewise, Otilia has a demanding boyfriend who doles out pity plays when she informs him that she won’t be able to make it to his mother’s birthday party. Her reason, of course, is well understood, but instead of giving her the space she needs and the trust she requests, he guilts her into going anyway. This will leave Gabita recovering in the hotel alone.
Upon Otilia’s arrival, Cristian Mungiu ensures that the party dinner scene feels rushed and congested and we get the sense of her stress. Jammed at the end of a table, it feels like she doesn’t belong there. When she wishes to smoke, one of the relatives chastises her. Her boyfriend doesn’t understand why she’s so distant, and so he picks a fight with her when the two are in his bedroom, where once again he issues pity plays. His mother then knocks on the door—invasively so—to bring them dessert. Once Otilia leaves, she is forced to show her ID at the hotel front desk and everyone, it seems, is making demands of her. The more obvious question is why does she feel the need to assume such responsibility? Everyone wants something from her. What more could she possibly give?
Upon returning, she wakes Gabita, who informs her that ‘it came out’. We then get a glimpse of a small fetus upon the bathroom floor, which Otilia wraps into a bloody towel. ‘What was it?’ Gabita inquires, but Otilia ignores her friend’s question. Then, the phone rings and Otilia asks Gabita to answer, which she can’t even do. By this time, you will wonder how Gabita has managed to accomplish anything in life. Ultimately, Otilia is the one who disposes of the fetus within a high-rise trash compartment.
18,050 are the number of days that Roe v. Wade protected abortion as a constitutional right in the United States. The events within this film have now become a grisly reality. Women will become pregnant and be unable to travel to neighboring states. Instead, there will be abortions taking place within hotel rooms, with shady, creepy people performing them. The fetuses will have to be disposed of and never spoken about. This is what will happen within those states with ‘Trigger Laws,’ wherein one can be charged with a felony for simply wanting to end a pregnancy.
When I heard the verdict that Friday, I was speechless. Saddened and angry, I felt like I no longer belonged to myself. Abortion had been a right in this country for longer than I have been alive. And those states where the procedures can still be performed—their clinics will be overwhelmed. What will be next? Quite simply, women’s health and safety are not a priority.
I remembered this film and decided to rewatch it, this time with a different perspective. And while the horror hasn’t changed, the personal nature has. Yet the truth is that it should not take personal infliction in order to feel frightened or outraged. The lack of medical care should be just as galling in 1987 Romania as it is now. It is unfortunate that people have to learn their lesson the hard way. But they don’t even do that. Rather, they impose their moral strictures onto others as they have come to believe that one must be punished (albeit they will call it ‘assuming responsibility’) for having sex.
One important mention is that Cristian Mungiu’s film is without music or score. Instead, we are faced with silences, with the quick passing of time, with immediate movement. We get a sense that every second counts. There is the pressure to think fast. But Otilia is the one doing the thinking, as Gabita doesn’t do much of anything.
I recently reviewed Frances, which tells the story of the actress Frances Farmer who, according to history, was forced to undergo a lobotomy. Key word is forced. It was not her choice. The details behind this involve her loss of rights, as her mother became her legal guardian. When it came to her own body and mind, Frances had no say. Likewise, this recent Supreme Court decision is not much different from shoving one into a straitjacket and claiming the ‘greater good’ is at hand. Greater, but for whom? It’s not the human but the potential human that moralists pretend to care about. Great and good are not one and the same.
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More from Jessica Schneider: The Sad Life of Frances Farmer as Shown in Graeme Clifford’s “Frances” (1982), A Confession of Influence: Paul Cézanne, Ukraine, and Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Ivan’s Childhood” (1962), The Mythic Depiction of John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939)