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      4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days Review

      4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days poster

      4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

      Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune

      Great acting comes in all shapes, sizes and temperatures, and sometimes a murmur of the heart speaks as loudly as the grand theatrical gesture. For a demonstration in the opposite of what Daniel Day-Lewis is up to, gloriously, in "There Will Be Blood," just savor the cool, subtle assurance of the greatest performance not recognized by this year's Academy Awards.

      The portrayal belongs to Anamaria Marinca, whose Sphinx-like countenance masks an emotional nightmare in "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." This is a beautiful film about ugly circumstances, set in 1987 near the end of the Ceausescu era in communist Romania. Its nominal subject is a naive college student (Laura Vasiliu) seeking a dangerous late-term end to an unwanted pregnancy. Marinca plays Otilia, her fellow student, not older but far wiser. Both women sacrifice a great deal in the space of 24 hours.

      The appearance of the abortionist known as Mr. Bebe (pronounced, cruelly, Baby) points to a sinister brand of melodrama. Yet "4 Months" is as far from a melodramatic "issue" film as a film can get without jumping mediums altogether. From the calm observational detail of its visual strategy to the precise moment writer-director Cristian Mungiu chooses to cut to black in the final scene - the women are survivors, but at what price? - everything works, nothing is hyped (not even the most wrenching footage), and Mungiu achieves the near-impossible.

      His film transcends sociopolitical matters of "endorsing" or "condemning" abortion and lands somewhere else, beyond the commercial likes of "Knocked Up" or "Waitress" or "Juno" and their canny centrist home-and-hearth values. I liked all those films to varying degrees and for different reasons, and clearly a stern number such as "4 Months" belongs to a different universe. It leaves larger questions of morality and pro-life/pro-choice up to the viewer, while concentrating, ruthlessly, on what his leading female characters endure, separately and together. The tale's impact is remarkable. Mungiu, who previously made the feature "Occidental" along with several short films, knew exactly how he wanted to make his story.

      The bartering begins early in "4 Months," and the entire country operates as a black-market capitalist economy under the radar of communism. Abortions are no different, really, than cigarettes: People want them, and they do what they must to get them. Gabita is a hapless character, pitiable in her fuzzy-headed arrangements and late-term dithering. She can't raise the money Mr. Bebe requires; with her friend Otilia's help, she books a hotel room for the procedure, but not at the establishment preferred by the back-alley practitioner with the deceptively diffident personality.

      Two extended sequences dominate this impeccably realized achievement. The first takes us into the seedy hotel room hired for the job. A sexual opportunist, Bebe knows his customer is no position to bargain. Otilia understands their adversary better than the pregnant Gabita, and the way director Mungiu bores in on Marinca's face in the hotel bathroom mirror, we're in extraordinary proximity to a soul - poetry deep down, like Hedda Gabler - who knows what she must do to pull her friend through the ordeal.

      The second bravura sequence takes Otilia to her boyfriend's parents' apartment for a birthday celebration. While Gabita lies still in the hotel room, on the other side of town, Otilia sits at a crowded dinner table in a cramped apartment full of merry, well-to-do members of the old order. In a long, fixed-camera take, Marinca's character sits tight, grits her teeth during the small talk about how easy the new generation has it in Romania and wonders if her friend is still alive. Nothing is over-stressed, and Marinca's face becomes a study in expressive minimalism - the only response this sort of survivor could have, arguably, to the situation and the country she must learn to navigate.

      There's no musical score, and cinematographer Oleg Mutu (who shot the marvelous "Death of Mr. Lazarescu" prior to "4 Months") brings out the eloquent, ashen gray and silver tones in a wintry world practically denuded of color. The result is a mixture of unified atmosphere and lived-in character study, and while Vasiliu's role is not as indelible as that of her co-stars, Marinca's Otilia and Ivanov's steely abortionist are just about perfect. You can call their work heightened naturalism, but in the end, labels fall short. See it for yourself.

      No MPAA rating (parents cautioned for violence, language and sexual situations).

      Running time: 1:53

      Starring: Anamaria Marinca (Otilia); Laura Vasiliu (Gabita); Vlad Ivanov (Mr. Bebe)

      Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu; photographed by Oleg Mutu; edited by Dana Bunescu; production design by Mihaela Poenaru; produced by Mutu and Mungiu. In Romanian with English subtitles. An IFC Films release.

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