By: Ty Bourgoise
This is part of a series on films and other media relevant to bioethics. Like recommendations, these reviews are here to help you find intelligent media you may or may not have heard of. So anything I review here, you can assume, bears my endorsement--go see it, read it, enjoy, and think.
Ceausescu-era Romania is grey, blue, and lit everywhere by the special effect of halfway burnt out bulbs. In the dimness, women throughout Gabita and Otilia’s dorm are concerned with how they look; judging by the number of cosmetics trading hands, beauty is one of those few freedoms an oppressed Romanian woman is allowed. A sane abortion, however, is one they aren’t.
In Christian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winning film, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, we see the extent to which they aren’t, and more. Very much more. The basic premise, though, is that Gabita, who needs an abortion, recruits her smarter and more practical roommate, Otilia, to handle the logistics. What unfolds is focused less on Gabita than Otilia. The result is something more thrilling and horrific than the best thrillers and horrors.
Because abortion is highly illegal, Otilia and Gabita have to make the latter’s a secret. In fact, for the first 35 minutes of the film there isn’t a peep of it. Otilia runs around, paranoid, collects money, doesn’t book a hotel room, books one, sneaks into it, and there haggles with exactly whom you’d expect to sell illegal abortions in 80s Romania: burly, enterprising, and charmless, a one “Mr. Bebe”, with his tools in a briefcase he does not want touched. A hotel bedroom is both his surgical and trading floor. Though, from the look on his, Gabita, and Otilia’s faces, you’d think this was a contract kill. This comparison might even overplay the apparent legitimacy of the procedure.
To “contract kill”, however, is the right comparison. Ceausescu’s regime was notably Orwellian with its conviction that aborting a fetus and murdering a person are morally equivalent. The acts are both relegated to the black market. But, in an odd scene, Otilia buys (presumably taxless) cigarettes from a random black marketer loitering in a hotel lobby. No one complains. Generally, it seems, everyone must tacitly trade in the illegitimate, only no one is willing to discuss or sympathize over this common misfortune. Such is the world that’s unsympathetic to Gabita and Otilia: it is inconsistent, and thereby amplifies the sense of possibility (and terror) that can be used to exploit these women. We know that their and Mr. Bebe’s punishment, if caught, would be draconian and arbitrary.
After a nightmarish compromise, the success of the Gabita’s procedure is not the end of anyone’s troubles. Foil #2, after Mr. Bebe, is Otilia’s boyfriend, Adi—kind of attractive, kind of a jerk. After the lengths of secrecy we’ve seen Otilia and Gabita go, we’re nervous to see how he’ll react to Otilia’s news (Unwittingly, he partially funded Gabita’s abortion.). What actually happens, while perhaps not insane—he’s plain-vanilla clueless—makes the movie more interesting. We take his misunderstanding as a relief: well at least he didn’t flip out. But what a low bar for a support system! It’s not that Adi wants to call the cops, like others in Romania we presume would. He wants to fix Otilia’s anxiety; he just barely knows how to. “What if you needed [an abortion],” he says parroting Otilia’s question, “but it won’t happen to us!”
His misguided support causes us to wonder at Otilia’s interior state. Just because the Ceacescu has a clear stance on abortions, that doesn’t mean women receiving them have the space to process what they mean. Gabita wants to finish college; Otilia wants Gabita to be able to do so. But when it comes to the fetus itself—what is it? How does the intelligent Otilia comprehend her friend’s situation? After it’s done, Gabita tells Otilia she “got rid of it […] It’s in the bathroom.” From Otilia’s eyes we see that hump of cellular mass, unceremoniously thrown onto a towel in a trash bag on the bathroom floor. The fuller the picture gets, the less Otilia seems to know what she’s seeing. Or she’s horrified by what she sees. Or both, we don’t know: she doesn’t get an opportunity to express her feelings with anyone. Just silence.
The need to be silent is a force in these women’s lives, complicating what’s already complicated. Of note is that the movie has no soundtrack. Silence prevents Otilia from expressing frustration at one of her boyfriend’s family’s bougie dinner party. At said offensively aloof dinner party, Otilia, silently, endures a barrage of classist slights at her background. Silence is even in the very last scene, as Otilia finds Gabita, no longer in shock, treating herself to a platter from a wedding party in the hotel lobby: breaded brains, marrow, liver, and other charcuterie that blurs the reality between offal and delicacy, mirroring the person/thing distinctions that befall a fetus. We can see Otilia wanting to say something, but she’s so misunderstood from all angles, why would she? Intimacy, compassion and understanding seem like such far off longings.
Mungiu is happy to employ twisted ironies to ask questions of law, women’s rights, and biology. You’ll have to watch his movie to find answers, which are bound to be controversial. Though he’s clearly aghast of totalitarianism and exploitation, Mungiu is not merely, I believe, depicting a fight between good and evil. In that way, 4M3W2D doesn’t tie a bow on the morality of abortion. It just views it through x-ray vision.
As an American, I am struck by how easy it is to see 80s Romania as being like where I live. Romanian communism has traces of metaphor for how the US turns a moral and cultural blindeye on women who need abortions. Even in liberal states where abortionists are not murdered, women who opt for the procedure are stigmatized to the point of emotional isolation. But things can be worse, right? In some states, it’s been the path of least political resistance to forfeit women’s rights through legislation, pushing them into other states or just away; out of sight, out of…. Such spaces for women in those states are ripe for, 4M3W2D shows, horrific exploitation. So, best be abstinent, the logic goes, or act like nothing’s wrong. After all, who’s to blame for an unwanted pregnancy but you? Certainly you have no right to be upset about it.
Ok. Well. Mungiu gives Mr. Bebe a great metaphor to condense this attitude. “If the probe comes out, we’re done,” he harps in his medical instructions to Gabita. “You cannot move under any circumstances”. Don’t move. Don’t squirm, don’t cry, don’t cope. Barely express, but preferably don’t at all. Gabita may wail and yelp and nearly fail on all counts, but Otilia “performs,” disturbingly well.
Ty Bourgoise is a writer living in New York.