Otilia seems an unlikely candidate for sainthood, but maybe that's the point. As played by Anamaria Marinca, a big-boned dirty blonde who's only beautiful in repose or in retrospect, Otilia's a college student in Bucharest, Romania, during the final years of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's rule. By the end of the very long day that comprises "4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days," we've been moved to speechlessness by her capacity to cope, to absorb other people's pain and her own, and then to cope some more.
"4 Months" arrives in town on the top of many critics' best-of-2007 list but not among the five foreign-language Oscar nominees. The first point is legitimate, the second a legitimate scandal (the film was eligible and submitted), for writer-director Cristian Mungiu confirms the Romanian cinema renaissance while creating a paradoxical marvel: a bleak tale of illegal abortion that powerfully affirms one's faith in people.
As with other recent films from Romania - "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" and "12:08 Bucharest," among them - the visual style is fly-on-the-wall. The action unfolds in what feels like real time and there's no musical score. "4 Months" begins as Otilia sets out to assist her friend and roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) through a "termination," observing the ensuing developments from morning to night with a cynicism that only gradually shades into bottomless sympathy.
Gabita's a wreck - a scared young woman who muffs the simple preparation instructions the seedy abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) gives her and who isn't even sure how long she has been pregnant. (The film's omniscient title offers us, and only us, that information.) She forgets to reserve a hotel room, leaves the required plastic sheet at home; as the film progresses we sense she may be using her haplessness to shift the responsibilities to her friend.
Otilia shoulders them as a matter of course. Gabita is her friend, even if she is a user, and they live in a society that treats men as an inconvenience and women as something worse. Besides, they could go to jail for what they're doing.
Ceausescu made abortion illegal in 1966; concerned with the country's falling birth rate during the 1980s, the government introduced harsh punitive measures, with even miscarriages subject to police investigation. "4 Months" thus takes place in a mood of constant paranoia, of petty irritations and a kind of mass bickering. This, Mungiu implies, is what life under Ceausescu was like and why the dictator was the only Iron Curtain ruler to be taken out and shot during the Revolutions of 1989.
Human life has ambiguous value in this underground barter economy and so, consequently, does ending it. An abortion can cost money, or a carton of Kents, or maybe something dearer - it depends on how far you're along and how much the abortionist wants to take advantage of you. One thing is clear: You will be taken advantage of.
Something strange occurs during "4 Months," though. As Otilia goes to further and further lengths for Gabita, and as her day becomes thankless in ways almost impossible to comprehend, she becomes purified. You may approach the film with a wariness borne of hype, but by the dinner-party scene that Mungiu uses as the story's fulcrum it's clear that this is something special, possibly great.
Otilia has left her friend at the hotel to grudgingly join her boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean) at his parent's house; it's his mother's birthday and Otilia hasn't told him what's going on with Gabita. Mungiu plunks his camera across the table from his heroine and lets the shot run at length; the banter flows around her with banal cheer and she stares into space, as pensive as a Modigliani model at the Last Supper. She's the elephant in the room standing in for everything these people aren't saying.
"4 Months" is too rough, too complex to be read simply as a feminist manifesto or a pro-choice polemic. In one sense, the film functions as a thriller: Will Gabita survive? Will Otilia get caught? On a deeper level, though, it's about coming through physical and spiritual exhaustion to a nearly Zen-like understanding of one's place in the universe - to a disgust with people and the governments they create that mingles mysteriously with all-encompassing pity. Otilia has only to raise her eyes a fraction during that dinner-party shot to accuse and forgive the audience as well. She doesn't, not then, but in the breathtaking final moments of "4 Months," her gaze finally implicates ours.