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Originally published Friday, February 8, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"4 Months" hard to witness, harder to forget

There's a terrifying immediacy to Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"; we're ushered, with documentarylike...

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," with Anamaria Marinca, Laura Vasiliu, Vlad Ivanov, Luminita Gheorghiu. Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu.

113 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains nudity and mature subject mature). In Romanian with English subtitles. Harvard Exit.

There's a terrifying immediacy to Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days"; we're ushered, with documentarylike realism, into rooms where we shouldn't be present, witnessing events we shouldn't see. The camera, handheld and deceptively amateurish (heads are chopped off some shots), captures this story's grim milieu: a shabby hotel room, with a hallway whose fluorescent light buzzes on and off; a peaceful yet eerie city street on a night that seems darker than night should be.

It is 1987 Romania, and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), a college student, is helping her roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) procure an illegal abortion. (Abortion was banned in Romania in 1966, and legalized after the fall of communism in 1989.) In the flat, ugly light of their cluttered dorm room in the film's opening scenes, they pack for an unnamed journey; it takes a while before we understand its destination. Otilia, more forthright and practical than the wispy Gabi, ventures out to handle the negotiations: black-market cigarettes and a hotel room, obtained through surly staffers who wonder sneeringly why a college girl needs a room. In that room, they meet the underground abortionist Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov). No kindly Vera Drake, he's a steely opportunist who demands a terrible price — from both women — before continuing.

All of this sounds unbearable to watch, and to be sure there are moments in "4 Months ... " where I wished to be anywhere but in that theater. But Mungiu's control is remarkable, and the film emerges as a devastating personal drama, a suspenseful horror story and a powerful statement about life under a repressive regime. With little dialogue, a wealth of details emerges. These roommates aren't particularly close — Otilia has a visible but gentle scorn for Gabi's passivity — but are now bound together by a secret forever shared. ("We're never going to talk of this again," says Otilia near the end.) The two actresses never hit a false note; watch, particularly, Marinca's face in a dinner-party scene (she's slipped away from the bedbound Gabi). Otilia looks utterly and miserably lost, as if she can never return to where she was before.

"4 Months ... " won three awards, including the grand prize, at the Cannes Film Festival last year. Watch it, if you can, and understand why.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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