The pregnant woman is Gabita, a flaky, nervous character with a passive-aggressive streak. Most of the arrangements for the procedure are being taken care of by her friend and room-mate, Otilia, who is Gabita's opposite – cheerful, capable, and selfless. Sadly, the abortionist in this film is a long way from Imelda Staunton's kind-hearted Vera Drake. His name is Mr. Bebe.
Bald and squat, a naff jumper stretched tightly over his barrel chest and belly, he at first seems to be merely no-nonsense, almost reasonable. He's annoyed that the abortion is to take place in a different hotel to the one he requested. This immediately gives him the upper hand in the negotiations for his payment.
When the abortionist tells the young women what he really wants, Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days really springs to life. The scenes in the hotel are heavy with an air of moral and spiritual dread, and are full of excruciating tension. The film follows Otilia as she briefly leaves Gabita to attend a meal at her boyfriend's parents' flat, and we hold our breath as she tries to get to the phone to call Gabita, whom she has left waiting for the process of termination to run its course.
The film looks at its characters with a cool eye, with meanings and moral judgements ambiguous – Otilia makes an almost unbelievable sacrifice for Gabita, but in the final analysis, does she really go the full distance for her friend? And what about the men in the film? Are they all, at heart, as reprehensible as Mr.Bebe?
Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days (it's an annoying title, but important – after this stage of the pregnancy, involvement in an abortion could get you convicted for murder) also looks brilliant. Yes it has the long static shots and natural lighting you expect in social-realist films, but it also has simple, effective, and occasionally chilling cinematography and composition. There's a signature shot – a medium close-up that cuts off the head of the scene's protagonist, but shows the item or equipment he is using at the time, be that a telephone or a suitcase of medical equipment.
I was reminded of three great films, which has to be a good sign. The relationship between the two girls, their contrasting personalities, and the way in which their impoverished but carefree lifestyle is destroyed by the influence of men, reminded me of Erick Zonca's The Dream Life of Angels. I also thought about Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, another recent Romanian film. The films are set on either side of the downfall of the communist era, but both portray their country with a mix of cynicism and affection. They also share the theme of kindness, of what one person will disinterestedly do for another. Finally, and most weirdly, I kept thinking about Pulp Fiction. As Gabita and Otilia go about their illegal business, and bicker about how they got into this mess, Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta kept popping into my head as they clean the bloody car in Quentin Taratino's garage.
Perhaps I thought of Pulp Fiction because like Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days, it won the Palme D'Or at Cannes. I haven't seen all the other contenders for last year's prize (The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly is out in February, and is supposed to be amazing), but Christian Mungiu certainly deserved recognition for this excellent film.