Cristian Mungiu’s film “4 luni, 3 saptamani, si 2 zile” (“4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”) is devastating. It is a film that has defined “harrowing” for me. It is a hard film for a culture that is hard of heart. Like “The Passion of Christ” it is a film of such violence that is not necessary for everyone to experience. For those who would like to watch the film without commentary you should stop reading here, but for those that don’t wish to subject themselves to the film or for those who wish to soften its blow, read on.
The story is simple, a woman helps her roommate procure an abortion. It is Romania in the 1980s when abortion is illegal and the first hour of the film is filled with quotidian details: packing, waxing legs, making snacks, buying cigarettes, finding a hotel room. The movie is not cluttered with excess emotional baggage, we never meet the father of the child, nor is he discussed, there’s no discussion of morals, no mention of the woman’s family, nor of the pregnancy’s impact on her life. Money isn’t really an issue, they had enough and more could be got if needed. These elements normally play a big part of any abortion film, but here they are pared down leaving only one question, how will this affect them?
The title invokes the downward clicking of a timebomb, a countdown that leads not to birth, but to death. The pacing is slow, which begins to give it a claustrophobic feel. Near the end of the movie the tension has been drawn so tight there doesn’t seem to be any way to conclude the movie. The last ten minutes of the film is such a punishing coda that it makes everything previous feel like foreplay. It is impossible to convey the impact of the finale without the hour and forty minute buildup, but I will try. After the abortion they are both in the restaurant of the hotel getting something to eat. There is a wedding party being celebrated on the other side of a divider and the waiter tells them that they are only serving what is on the wedding menu. That is fine, they say, and the waiter tells them their options: beef, pork filet, liver, breaded brains, and marrow…
There have been many critics who have willfully overlooked this detail in the movie. The ending has even been praised (Salon blithely calls it “a brilliant final scene…”), but you cannot understand this movie without paying attention to these last few lines. The food they are offered is a butchered body. The roommate asks for some water while they decide and after a few seconds she turns to the camera and gives such a haunting look, a look of such despair, we understand that the bomb has gone off. She is annihilated in the darkness in which the credits roll.
As a testament to its deft handling let me invoke its title again; in the movie the mother doesn’t know the age of the child, she thinks it’s around 4 months, but can’t be sure. To give us the exact age of the child gives us a God’s eye view. The viewer, in this way, is closer to the child than the mother. The title demands we do the math, the moral math required by modern pro-abortionists: at what age do we bestow lifehood? At 2 months? 3? 4? How about 143 days, 4 months, 3 weeks, and 2 days, which is a little more than halfway to 9 months?
I recently read a line in a poem that sums up this movie perfectly, “This is art not survival”. To put your foot in the door of this film is to put yourself in the way of danger. You will not escape whole; this movie will take a piece out of you, maybe more. I have been bleeding for days and expect to be haunted for days more. This movie cares not how you make it home, it cares not how you understand it or live your days after it. It will chop you up, throw you in the dumpster, and leave you to the dogs. I cannot recommend it without these cautions. It may be that the best way to get around this movie is to make the same vow as the two women; sitting at the restaurant table they agree to never mention this event again. Or we could promote this movie as an apt response to the glibness of Juno‘s attitude toward abortion. Either way it will not leave you alone, so if you value your peace may the viewer beware.