Raw and unflinching are the words that best describe 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, the title of which refers to how far along one of the characters is in her pregnancy when she undergoes an illegal abortion in late ‘80s Romania. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the screen except for one, brief moment (and then only because I couldn’t bear to watch). Director Cristian Mungiu pulls you into this world with an iron grip and refuses to let go. It is a work of extraordinary power and compassion and is important in the way so many films attempt to be and yet so few films really are.

Mungiu has stripped everything–the cinematography, the writing, the acting–of any sort of embellishment. There is no soundtrack. There are no fancy camera moves. The Romanian landscape is drained of color, an empty, inhospitable place. There is no beauty and little joy. The only laughter in the film, near the end, is hollow and forced, a paltry substitute for true humor. The walls of the college dorm the film begins in are whitewashed concrete, the floors dirty and devoid of carpet. Much like East Germany in The Lives of Others, Romania is a prison for the film’s characters; there are no walls or bars, but it nevertheless feels like a 10-by-10 windowless concrete cell.
Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu give moving, understated performances as Otilia and Gabita, college roommates in Bucharest. Although Gabita is the one who is pregnant, the story really belongs to Otilia, and the camera follows her as she makes preparations for her roommate’s procedure. The film takes place in a single day, and Mungiu uses long, extended shots to bring you into an uncomfortable intimacy with the girls. You are not allowed to be some distant voyeur, contemplating their troubles from afar, but forced to become a close participant in their lives. You have to be with them rather than to simply watch. Suffice to say, this is not a film that engenders complacency.

In communist Romania, everyone is a part of the black market, and securing something as simple as a hotel room requires bribery. Economic restrictions make bartering a normal part of relationships. You can’t survive without a quick tongue and a shrewd sense of business. Otilia needs Kent cigarettes (Marlboros won’t cut it) in order to bribe the hotel clerk, but her dormmate won’t part with them because he needs to grease the wheels of other transaction himself. She also needs money from her boyfriend (he needs her to pick up flowers for his mother’s birthday party), and although the haggling is softened by the romantic nature of their relationship, it’s a negotiation nonetheless. And, in one of the film’s most painful moments, this bartering (that has become part of the fabric of Romanian life) has unforeseen and wrenching consequences when the girls realize that money alone isn’t enough to cover the abortion.

The film’s blistering power is owed almost entirely to the fact that it avoids politicizing one of the most hot-button issues in the world today (especially in America). I would not be willing to wager money on writer-director Mungiu’s pro-choice or pro-life leanings. He is simply observing (not passively, however) a situation many women find themselves in – alone, pregnant, and forced to make life-altering decisions within the inexperience of youth. The reasons for the abortion are not even given, although the difficulty of the choice and the ramifications of their actions are made apparent.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me tell you that I’m staunchly pro-life. I have an 18-month daughter who is so full of energy and life that it takes my breath away, and my wife is pregnant with our second child, a boy. I cannot fathom ever considering whether or not to terminate their lives. It would be easy for me to pass judgment on Otilia and Gabita, to call them murderers or child killers or selfish cowards. But I’m also blessed with a loving spouse, a roof over my head, and a steady source of income, three things that neither of these girls have. I’ve made some piss poor decisions in my life and there, but for the grace of God, go I. Do I think they made the right decision? No, of course I don’t, but it would be utter folly for me to judge them. Truly, it’s a testament to the film’s stunning force that I keep referring to Otilia and Gabita as real human beings

Are you a pro-choice advocate? Then you must see 4 Months, for it refuses to idealize abortion. Here it is in all of its bloody, messy, tragic horror, dumped unceremoniously on the floor of a dirty bathroom in a ragged heap. At one point I had to look away; what was on screen was just too horrible to keep watching. If you’re going to fight for a woman’s right to choose, you need to see what that choice looks like.

And if you’re a pro-life advocate, then you are equally obligated to see this film. Young, terrified women find themselves in this situation on a daily basis in our country. It’s easy and painless to sit back and judge from your golden pedestal, condemning the “baby killers” while you lounge in your pews. Here are real people in real trouble with real pain in their lives. It’s not so easy to condemn another when you’re forced to walk in their shoes.

After the film, I took my baby girl to play at a nearby park. As I watched her go down the slide and pick flowers to give to me and laugh as a dog licked her face, images from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days kept flashing before my eyes. How easy it would be for me to go about my life, thankful that I never had to make the kind of decision that Otilia and Gabita did, and write off the thousands of girls and women caught in their plight with a flick of my religious wrist.

I guess the question is, will I?

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