By Dave Andrusko
Editor’s note. This editorial from the March 2008 edition is part of our year-long “Roe at 40” series which offers stories and columns from National Right to Life News going back to 1973. When I ran a version of this column at Today’s News & Views (the predecessor to NRL News Today), it garnered the most response of any entry in the seven-year history of TN&V. Please share this with your pro-life friends and family.
Even in the nation’s capital, you wouldn’t expect much of a crowd to be munching popcorn and draining Diet Cokes at a 1:05 in the afternoon matinee. So when my wife and I sat down at the E Street Cinema, located just around the corner from NRLC’s office, it was no surprise that our presence doubled the attendance to watch “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days.”
In limited release in the United States, “4 months” is best known for two qualities. Although loaded down with many “best of” awards from critics, the Romanian film inexplicably was not among the five foreign language Oscar nominees.
The other is easier to understand. Since “4 months” deals unflinchingly with an illegal abortion procured in the latter years of the reign of the madman Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, some want to label it the anti-“Juno.”
As we examine whether and how this might be true, let me not overlook that writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s film is brilliantly conceived and executed, more than deserving of the Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and the European Film Award.
We’ve discussed the smash hit “Juno” three times. It deals with the pregnancy of a 16-year-old Minnesota girl. Despite critics (and the insistence of the leading lady, Ellen Page, who describes herself as “very much pro-choice”), the question for anyone who thought carefully about the film was never whether “Juno” set out to be pro-life.
Rather, as the Marxists might say, was the film objectively pro-life? Whatever the intention, did “Juno,” for example, humanize not only the unborn baby but also all the parties involved? Did it make clear that Juno MacDuff would have had her abortion had it not been for the faithfulness of one lone sidewalk counselor? Did we come away appreciating how we are all frail human beings, looking for what we might see as the “easier” way out of a crisis situation?
“Juno” accomplished all this and much more. That it did so in spite of what the movers and shakers involved in the project may have wanted speaks volumes. Back to “4 months.”
The film is set in Romania somewhere around 1987. Each scene is shot in one take with the “camera either remaining steady as characters pass in and out of the frame, or trailing them as they walk,” as Variety explains the technique. Thus, it is as if the action unfolds in real time. The audience has the distinct feeling it is in the same room as the characters on the screen.
“4 months” is one day in the life of Otilia, a pregnant college student, and Gabita, her roommate who (ironically?) goes through extraordinary physical and emotional turmoil to help Otilia procure an abortion.
It is also the last day in the life of her child. Only the audience knows how old the baby really is—four months, three weeks, and two days.
Only a pro-lifer, perhaps, might pick up on the significance of how seemingly sloppy/careless/disorganized Otilia is. Everything the abortionist has told her to do in advance she “forgets,” ignores, or bungles. Perhaps Otilia isn’t at all ready to have the abortion, a conclusion strengthened by her response when she sees the child’s body lying on the floor.
As marvelous as the two female leads are, the performance of the actor playing the villainous Mr. Bebe should not be slighted. (The Los Angeles Film Critics Association gave him its best supporting actor prize. One reviewer calls him “magnetically repellent.”) As I saw his inhumanity unfold in all its savagery, I was reminded of a famous characterization found in a different context: “the banality of evil.”
Bebe is soft-spoken (he paternalistically calls Otilia “young woman” over and over and tells her he will come back and check on her, if she wishes) and comes off as almost reasonable until, after a violent verbal explosion, he blackmails both women into giving him sexual favors before he will perform the abortion.
Just as no one started off to make “Juno” a pro-life film, so, too, I’m sure that is the case with “4 months.” There is no one who takes up the cause of the child or questions whether an abortion would be the right decision. But neither is it a pro-abortion propaganda film.
That the film packs an extraordinary wallop is undeniable. Movie blogger Jeffery Wells was wowed by what he calls a “masterpiece.” Wells matter-of-factly mentions his own involvement in two abortions, so it’s not as if he has a pro-life axe to grind.
Read what he has to say about “4 months”:
“This is a haunting moral tale and a psychologically tense suspense film, as well as the most persuasive anti-abortion argument in any form I’ve ever heard, seen or read.”
The movie not only left Wells feeling “moved and shaken,” he writes, but “changed.” This is undoubtedly true but people will come to that conclusion for different reasons.
One obvious explanation is the sight of the bloodied, dead baby lying on the floor. I don’t know how often the results of a “termination” have ever been shown in a film, but the impact all but knocks the breath out of you.
Gabita has returned to the hotel after being emotionally blackmailed into attending a birthday party for her self-indulgent boyfriend’s mother. Otilia awakes and tells Gabita she has aborted.
The camera focuses on Gabita’s face—which has seemingly already aged years in the matter of a few hours—as she opens the door to the bathroom. Gradually the angle is expanded and we see the baby’s body, partially wrapped in a towel. It is when Otilia joins Gabita that she asks her roommate not to dispose of the baby but to “bury” the remains.
“4 months” is filled with the kind of details that make an already impossibly tense situation even more draining. Earlier, in a brilliant touch, a dog passes by Gabita just before she first tries to book a room.
Later the abortionist warns her not to bury the body because dogs might dig it up. In a harrowing scene, as she tries to figure out what to do with the baby, Gabita is startled by the sound of barking dogs. She jumped. I jumped.
But knowing that the “termination” caused the death of a real, live baby is only part of the answer. Without preaching—or perhaps even intending—“4 months” also reveals the ugliness of abortion per se, not its legality or illegality. I don’t believe it is possible to come away from the film without at least considering the possibility that an abortion not only costs a helpless victim his or her life but also extracts a considerable chunk of humanity from those who take that life.
Blogger Wells rightly observes,
“A long scene in which these three sit in a hotel room and hash out the monetary, bartered and medicinal basics of what has to be done for the abortion to take place is the heart of the film, and it’s unforgettable.”
In the film’s concluding scene Otilia’s response can be read in different ways. While Gabita is away, charged with the soul-draining task of disposing of the dead baby, Otilia has left the room. Gabita returns to find her in the hotel restaurant about to be served dinner.
“4 months” ends as Otilia asks Gabita what she did with the baby. Gabita, who has done everything for her roommate but have the abortion herself, tells her they should never speak of this again.
If the genius of acting is not to appear as if you are acting, in all the hundreds of films I’ve seen in my lifetime, none surpasses “4 months” for sheer naturalism. And with a bare minimum of dialogue, Mungiu fleshes out the characters in remarkable depth.
Otilia is small-voiced and seemingly timid, but quite capable of passive manipulation of a high order.
Gabita is fiercely loyal, even if in the service of a grotesque wrong–brave, and quick witted. The exchange she has with her oafish boyfriend at the mother’s birthday party ought to be required viewing by all adolescents.
Prof. Thomas Hibbs, writing at nationalreview.com, offers this keen insight:
“One of the chief deprivations in a totalitarian police state is imaginative and linguistic. The verbal communication in the film is always terse, often brittle, and typically narrowly pragmatic. The characters lack a vocabulary to describe their condition; indeed, they are for the most part void of longing to understand or to communicate. The silence itself, the physical revulsion in the face of an unspeakable act, has an artistic, emotional, and deeply moral impact. By giving a face to the voiceless victim of abortion, this film bespeaks the horror of an unspeakable act.”
A remarkable film. I would strongly recommend “4 months” to any adult.