A pervasive miasma hovers over everything in writer/director Cristian Mungiu’s latest film, winner of the 2007 Golden Palm Award at Cannes. It depicts Romania’s endless, sardonic gloom during the Ceausescu-era, as expressed through the bleak lives of the college students examined in the movie’s storyline. Although the plot’s focus concerns that country’s efforts to increase its birthrate by rigorously suppressing abortion, 4 Days locates that governmental initiative against the backdrop of a pervasive drive to control all aspects of the lives of its citizenry, even the most highly educated and politically well-connected. Like the brilliant German film The Lives of Others released last spring, 4 Days powerfully conveys the smothering capacity of communist ideology in the period just prior to the breakup of the U.S.S.R. That such a superbly damning societal indictment serves merely as the subtext of an extended examination of illegal abortion reflects both the scope of Munigiu’s artistic ambition and the skill with which his partner and cinematographer Oleg Mutu visually captures it. Coming at a time when overturning Roe vs. Wade can no longer be considered improbable in this country, 4 Days makes an impressive, if polemical statement.
The film’s timeline covers less than 24 hours. Some months before the story begins to unfold, university student Gabriela Dragut has been impregnated by her boyfriend. She’s made frantic inquires among her fellow students about her options and winds up contacting a man an illegal abortionist named Bebe. When the agreed-upon day arrives, she enlists the help of her dormitory roommate Otilia in arranging a 3-day stay at a hotel where the procedure and its aftermath will play themselves out. Navigating the petty tyranny of the hotel’s officious staff, Otilia and Gabriela lock themselves in with Bebe, who discovers that Gabriella’s pregnancy is more advanced, (hence the film’s title) making his involvement in terminating it a far more serious crime. Insisting that the young women haven’t brought enough money to pay for his increased risk, Bebe demands an additional “bonus”; sex before termination. After browbeating both into meeting this new condition, he gives the desperate Gabriela a contraction-inducing injection, then leaves them with instructions for disposal of the fetus after Gabriela expels it from her womb.
Committed to attending the birthday celebration of her boyfriend’s mother, Otilia is forced to leave Gabriella spread-eagled on the hotel bed awaiting the delivery. Rushing to the party, Otilia has a bitter exchange with her boyfriend before returning to the hotel a few hours later to find the bloody fetus wrapped in towel on the drab bathroom floor. Nearly catatonic, Gabriella pleads with Otilia to bury the body, but in the film’s final, nightmarish urban landscape, she opts instead to discard the body in the callused manner suggested by the abortionist. When she returns to the hotel to face Gabriella’s cross-examination, Otilia coldly informs her friend that the subject will never be discussed between them. That exchange takes place in a final, truncated late-night meal, shot in the hotel’s vacant dining room in the early hours of the next colorless day in these young women’s lives…
To the writer/director’s considerable credit, there is no attempt to justify the abortion, nor make these two young women heroines; at her best, Gabriella’s an easily manipulated, flighty young woman, content to rely on the sterner stuff of which Otilia is made. In meeting Bebe’s demands and taking charge of the fetus’ disposal, Otilia’s taciturn cynicism provides little sympathy for her roommate and Otilia’s willingness to have unprotected sex with her boyfriend, (only grudgingly sympathetic to Gabriella’s situation) suggests that accommodating the abortionist’s demands represents simply another accommodation to an environment where one barters away individual autonomy in an effort to get through life.
Actor Vlad Ivanov presents an award-winning portrait of Bebe, a character of such soulless mendacity his role should be eligible for Academy Award consideration. Intimidation has never been presented with such matter-of-fact brutality and American audiences can only hope that this gifted thespian will find work in more films shown here.
Otilia is played by Anamaria Marinca, an actress who lives and works in London. She returned to her native Romania for this part and her subtle, conflicted portrayal of a middle-class collegian struggling to find her place in a society which devalues her potential ranks as one of the year’s best. She gives compelling testimony to conditions in which a woman’s options are as circumscribed by her gender they are by the political system under which she’s forced to live. Working with a fine supporting cast, Marinca & the director bring to life a society where it’s estimated that half million women died as the result of illegal abortions in the 22+ years of Ceausescu’s tyrannical rule. (Ironically, Romania now leads all of Europe as the country where abortion is most often employed as a method of contraception, with more than 300,000 such procedures reported annually.)
Cinematographer Mutu’s cameras filmed 4 Days on location, recording life in the cramped apartments, hotels and dormitories of present day Bucharest. Shooting over and around the shoulders of the cast, Mutu tracks black market sales in the dorms, the uniformly depressing architecture of the city’s buildings and the cramped conditions in which her boyfriend’s professorial parents entertain their friends. Relying only on the natural light these sites provided illuminates some shots so poorly that much of their detail gets lost, but as the movie pursues Otilia’s frantic efforts to dispose of Gabrielle’s baby, the very fact that the backgrounds have grown nearly unrecognizable makes the results ever more horrifying. What 4 Days may lack in expensive production detail is more than compensated for by its capacity to deliver a scorching, worm’s-eye view of post WW II life in one of Eastern Europe’s saddest examples of 20th century oppression.
The verdict? A brilliantly disturbing piece of social commentary on the moral ambiguity of anti-abortion efforts, superimposed on a matter-of-fact examination of communist society as experienced by those forced to live in it. The results are tough to watch and even tougher to come to terms with.
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