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Dark Days

Looking at the lives of women in a Romanian dictatorship

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Nicolae Ceausescu ruled Romania from 1965 until 1989. During those years, Romanians endured a totalitarian government that impoverished them. In his attempt to make Romania completely independent by rapidly paying off the foreign debt, Ceausescu plunged Romania and its people into destitution and sowed the seeds that resulted in his own demise. Perhaps the most horrifying policy of Ceausescu was his plan to increase the population of Romania from 23 million to 30 million by the year 2000. Abortion and contraception were banned and sex education forbidden. The birth rate increased, but poor nutrition and inadequate prenatal care shoved the infant mortality rate to more than eight times the rate in Western European countries. Low-birth-weight babies were classified as miscarriages and denied care. Every few months, government officials rounded up women under the age of 45 at their jobs and had them taken to a clinic to be examined for signs of pregnancy. A pregnant woman who did not deliver a baby at the expected time was under suspicion for having had an abortion. A "celibacy tax" equaling as much as 10 percent of their monthly salary was charged to women who did not have children, even if they were unable to conceive.

It's in this hostile environment that Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days is set. It is the story of Otilia and Gabita, two women whose story is told in director Cristian Mungiu's (Occident) sad but remarkable film, which covers the events of one day in 1987. Otilia is helping her roommate, Gabita, find a way to have an abortion. At the time in Romania, abortions were illegal, but not uncommon. However, Otilia discovers that the process of obtaining one is an ordeal that promises little and may deliver even less. Everyone wants to discourage and interrogate Otilia. A hotel clerk questions her about wanting a room and then claims that no rooms are available. Every step in the process is a hurdle to clear for Otilia. Although there are no armies marching in the streets or midnight raids on private homes, the oppressive nature of the society permeates this film.

This is a story filled with secrets, shadows and suspicion. The skies in Romania are always overcast. Stray dogs roam the streets. The women occupy dorm-like buildings that appear to be constructed with deliberate ugliness. They move through poorly lit halls and bargain with others for products sold on the black market. Anything from cigarettes to hot water for the shower can be bought for a price. Many of the scenes in this film are unusually long, and the camera follows the characters as they move in and out of their interactions with others. It gives the viewer a degree of intimacy with Otilia and Gabica, that is rarely experienced in film. The two women pretend to be, and act like, sisters, sacrificing themselves for each other. But even when anger and suspicion threaten their relationship, their loyalty to each other is stronger than any conflict. They continue to provide mutual support, perhaps knowing that they need each other.

Two competent actresses, Anamaria Marinca (Otilia) and Laura Vasiliu (Gabita), anchor the performances in this award-winning film, which collected the coveted Golden Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival. There's a touch of quiet desperation in their acting as they strive against the barriers imposed by government, culture and time, trying to cope with Gabita's unwanted pregnancy. Alexandru Potocean plays Adi, Otilia's boyfriend. Otilia and Adi's relationship is strained due in part to income disparity. Otilia sees Adi as an extension of the oppressive nature of the country as he tries to control her life. Marinca's acting is especially effective in a scene where Otilia is attending a birthday party for Adi's mother. Otilia, a student, is surrounded by physicians and scientists as they eat, drink and joke about their lives. Otilia is clearly uncomfortable in their presence. She's in another world, and her thoughts are with Gabita, who waits in the hotel room.

Bebe, the creepy abortionist, is expertly played by Vlad Ivanov. In a domineering and condescending manner, Bebe makes a big issue of the dangers involved in performing an abortion, but uses no sterilization techniques during the procedure, and is willing to swindle the girls for as much money as possible, as well as demand additional services.

Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days is a consistently strong and tightly woven film, with just the right amount of tension. Even though the year is still young, Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days could easily be the best foreign film you'll see this year.