Foreign Film Week: The Accidental Feminism of ’4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’

 Guest post written by Nadia Barbu.

 In the 1960’s and 70’s, the regime of Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was considered one of the more liberal in the European Soviet block, and maintained diplomatic relations with Western countries (US President Richard Nixon visited him twice; the Queen of England bestowed upon him a knighthood). Of course, such a glorious leader required a large population to honor him and enjoy his enlightened rule. In 1967, he released a Decree that outlawed abortion (and, unofficially, all other forms of birth control too).
What followed was an organized madness aimed at turning women into baby-making machines. People who remained unmarried or childless after the age of 25 had to pay a special “celibacy” tax. Thousands of women died in agony or were permanently damaged by back-alley abortion attempts. Miscarriages were investigated and the women who suffered them were treated like criminals. Working women were forced to undergo medical exams at their workplace, with any pregnancy suspicion to be reported and monitored. Many of those who couldn’t terminate abandoned their babies, and Romania became infamous for its gruesome orphanages where unwanted children were left to die of starvation or diseases caught through poor sterilization of medical equipment.
It is in the aftermath of the infamous Decree that writer-director Cristian Mungiu set his 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which would go on to win Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and near-universal praise from film critics all around the world. The film doesn’t really go much into explaining the details of its universe, though, so I assume that more than just one pair of untrained eyes didn’t know what to make of it. Perhaps it’s for the best, and maybe we shouldn’t burden Mungiu with the responsibility of making some grand political statement when he just wanted to tell the story of a few individuals navigating those times. Then again, I’ve read many comments who were oblivious to the political context, harshly judging the characters by measuring them up to the standards of modern life in a Western country, or misinterpreting this depiction of an illegal abortion as an argument against abortion in general, and this is such an inflammatory issue, that maybe in this case a more in-depth explanation of the film’s setting was absolutely required, especially since 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is not a film you can easily forget, for better or worse.

Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
The story is focused on university students and friends Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), who is pregnant (guess how far along?) and seeks an illegal abortion. While Gabita is the one with “the problem,” the burden of solving it falls mostly on Otilia, the obvious protagonist, who has to book a hotel room, scramble for money, bribe the abortionist, all while fitting in a dinner with her boyfriend’s unpleasant family. The affair takes an even nastier turn when (spoilers) Mr. Bebe, the man who is supposed to perform the procedure, is unhappy with the payment and requests sex with both women as a compensation. The girls are initially shocked, but see no other option but to give in and the abortion happens. The film doesn’t shy away from a shot of the dead fetus on the bathroom floor. Yes, it’s all exactly as bleak as it sounds, sometimes compellingly so, sometimes in ways that seem forced and calculated.
Although played brilliantly by Vlad Ivanov (who has since become typecast as the absolute bad guy of Romanian cinema), I feel that Mr. Bebe cheapens the story a bit by being such an unambiguous, black-and-white villain. It’s as if Mungiu feared that we wouldn’t understand or find meaning in the women’s plight if they were ‘only’ being violated by suffering pain, risking injury and death, or by being treated by the state as nothing more than incubators; some literal rape was necessary to hammer the point home. It’s not enough that Otilia and Gabita’s friendship has an obvious power imbalance, in which Otilia behaves like a workhorse getting everything done for her friend — she has to literally prostitute herself for Gabita.

European dramas have been described as award-baiting “misery porn” more than once, endlessly piling misfortunes on the characters, and while I don’t think 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is misery porn, the scene in which Mr. Bebe demands sex with the two girls made little sense to me, except that it made me cringe, but it’s not like the film didn’t have enough cringe-inducing material already. Would the film have been just as talked about without the rape? Or without the seemingly endless shot of the aborted fetus?

Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
This doesn’t mean that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days isn’t capable of subtlety. Maybe the most heartbreaking aspect of a system without reproductive rights is the loneliness of the women enduring it, while their partners continue to demand intercourse in the name of love, and often refuse to take any responsibility for its consequences in the name of freedom. Heterosexual romance is a celebrated force in pretty much every culture. Yet the much-praised mirage of wonderful romantic love suddenly seems nothing more than hypocrisy when one of the lovers is faced with the reality of having to “solve the problem” of an unwanted pregnancy on their own. Love is for two, but any subsequent suffering is just for one, something not to be talked about. At the family dinner party which Otilia attends for her boyfriend’s sake, she is more or less openly humiliated, yet her partner makes no effort to take her side, all the contrary: he expresses irritation at her inadequacy in filling the social role he had assigned for her. In a private conversation, Otilia asks him how they would deal with a pregnancy: he hasn’t even considered the issue. There is no ’we’, just appearances to be preserved and conventions to be perpetuated. At no other moment did the film seem as poignant to me, and so sensitive to gender issues.
Is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days a feminist film in spirit? Well, it does pass the Bechdel test with flying colors, but writer-director Mungiu has spoken again and again about the film’s unwillingness to take sides in the question of reproductive rights, and this could in fact be constructed as making a case for each side depending on your point of view. The only other “abortion movie” in Romanian cinema was a Communist propaganda film in which the girl seeking abortion is “punished” by suffering a gruesome death as a consequence; Mungiu’s film stays clear of such obvious moral judgements, although it’s pretty clear that not only the monstrous abortionist, but the woman having the procedure herself are less than pleasant characters, and the filmmaker himself does personally seem to consider abortion unethical.

Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Centering the story on two women and their friendship is just as unusual in Romanian cinema as everywhere else, sadly. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days could look like a showcase of female solidarity: the women have only each other to lean on, out of desperation if nothing else, Otilia plays the role of the supportive partner to Gabita, whose co-author in the pregnancy is nowhere to be seen or even mentioned, and she openly states that she would put her trust in Gabita to provide similar help. Yet this idea dissolves at a closer scrutinizing — Gabita is an underdeveloped character who is just as exploitive and entitled towards Otilia as the other people surrounding our protagonist, and other signs of women’s collaboration are nowhere to be seen.  

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is not a story of female resistance against an oppressive regime: stripped of any semblance of agency, Otilia is utterly alone, and even though the story has her running around all the time with apparently endless energy, her energy is entirely put to the service of others: her friend, her lover or who else may need her. The helpful woman, always hard-working, always self-sacrificing, her body and mind never belonging to herself or her own goals: this is Otilia, nothing but a pawn. Mungiu said he didn’t write the character with gender issues in mind, but it’s hard to imagine a man in a similar selfless, self-effacing role.

Perhaps 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days ends up making a statement about gender and patriarchy without aiming to do so; perhaps it was inevitable, due to the subject matter. Its deeper observations about the oppression of women are, however, doomed to be drowned in debate on pro-choice vs. pro-life, shock value and the calculated artsy-ness of its minimalistic style — which is a shame, since it’s a story so rarely told in such an open manner.

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Nadia Barbu lives in London, has a bachelor’s degree in journalism, a master’s degree in film and is very likely to someday start a PhD in Something Completely Different. So far she has written about politics, feminism, saving the planet, film, fashion, design, and many other things; at the moment she writes mostly about animation and can be found here http://www.animationmagazine.eu/author/nadia/.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13042740730713682014 Bitch Flicks

    There is no rape in this film. The man offers his terms and they consent.