The festival and art house crowd might be excused for declaring a Romanian New Wave on the basis of what amounts to just three films in as many years, for those three films are all pretty amazing: Cristi Puiu's The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, winner of the 2005 Un Certain Regard at Cannes; Corneliu Porumboiu's 12:08 East of Bucharest, winner of the 2006 Camera d'Or at Cannes; and now Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, winner of the 2007 Palme d'Or at Cannes.*

(The French, they have their obsessions).

That said, the newest film in that triptych suggests, I fear, that the end is already coming. Not because it is bad, dear Lord no, but as much as I wanted to collapse in love with 4 Months, there is a distinct whiffiness to it, the first tiny sense that it's not as fresh an aesthetic as it once was, not as invigorating. I give it two more films before the backlash.

In the meanwhile, we've got this film and the many cues that it has clearly taken from Mr. Lazarescu, which is a criticism in roughly the same way that claiming "Scorsese takes cues from Godard" is a criticism. That is to say, when something is done this right, there's not a whole lot of reason to screw around with it.

The New Romanian Aesthetic, for the uninitiated: long, long, long (scene-long, if possible) takes shot on a handheld camera + an obsession with the legacy of the Ceauşescu regime + unbridled pessimism. The films are at least nominally "realistic," according to the current fashion (certainly, the current "handheld camera" vogue in Europe seems to have arisen from the turn by some documentarians, notably the Dardenne brothers, to neorealist-style filmmaking derived from their documentaries in the mid-to-late '90s), but I tend to wonder how much of that is incidental: certainly Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months have scenes that begin to flirt with Expressionism in mood and lighting. Maybe we could call it Expressionism as shot by Neorealists. At any rate, it's not like anything else in world cinema right now.

The specifics of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days make it the most urgent and least pleasant of the recent Romanian films: Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) is a pregnant college student in 1987 (can you guess how far along she is?), terrified because she has finally set in motion the events that will lead to her extremely illegal and significantly dangerous abortion. "Setting in motion" in this case refers to begging her roommate and best friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) to take care of all the details for her, from calling the abortionist to arranging the hotel to scraping together the money.

Honestly, if you set yourself the question "how much awful can happen to these two people without their actual deaths?" you will probably have a good sense of where the plot goes and ends up. Eastern European miserabilism is as rigid a form as any other, and while this might be slightly more miserable than most, it hits most of the familiar notes.

The important thing to note about the film, is that unlike Mr. Lazarescu, a conscious and obvious satire about the medical industry, 4 Months isn't "about" what it's about. That is, it's not an argument for or against abortion, after the fashion of e.g. Vera Drake. Abortion is the vehicle for which it is a much broader assault on the bureaucratic nightmare of Communist Romania, a situation which the film implies hasn't improved much. The drama isn't so much that Gabita is having a pregnancy terminated as that the two girls are putting themselves at significant risk by breaking the law in a totalitarian state.

There are plenty of tiny details that encourage this reading, such as the hinting references throughout to the black market, to Otilia's facility with bribing officials, to all the talk throughout the film about the way the government treats college graduates; and there is a great big detail, which is that the word "abortion" isn't spoken until over halfway into the film, and that a viewer not armed with the plot outline could easily go 45 minutes without having any idea what's happening. But for my tastes, the best support for the film's anti-bureaucracy, as opposed to anti-anti-abortion, theme, is Anamaria Morinca's incandescent performance. It's very clear that Otilia loves Gabita, wants to help her through a trying time, and probably counts as feminist by the standards of 1987 Romania, but what the script doesn't really foreground until late in, that Morinca makes clear pretty much from her first scene, is how pissed-off Otilia is at everything she has to do. For her this is all a matter of inconvenience, made worse by Gabita's startling ability to everything exactly wrong, and you can see it in the actress's eyes, and the way she bends her mouth, and even the tiny slouch to her back, that she is every bit as annoyed as sympathetic. She's very good at working in the system, but she doesn't like having to do it.

Otilia is framed as being the worldly one, the one who knows how the government is, and that is why focusing on her, and focusing on her anger rather than her sorrow, allows the film to focus on the myriad ways in which the government trips the women up. It's also noteworthy that the only time Otilia cracks is not when her friend is given the surgery, nor even when she has to deal with the dead fetus, but when she ventures outside and is confronted with the possibility of being caught. It's at this point that the film ventures from dramatic miserabilism into something like Expressionist horror, in both the lighting and the sound, and it has everything to do with being a lawbreaker under a Communist regime, not being a scared girl with a dead fetus.

Mind you, the abortion plot is still harrowing, and evokes much in the way of human drama; it's just not the polemical aim of the film to explode that.

When all is said and done, this might well be a better film than its predecessors, but I keep coming back to that teeny tiny touch of staleness. The style works but it is no longer exciting and fresh, and where Mr. Lazarescu seemed almost adventurous to watch, 4 Months seems perilously close to being the Old Guard.

9/10