Class, Gender and Abortion in Communist Romania
“4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”, the latest installment in new Romanian cinema, is definitely worth the hype and the excitement surrounding it. This is the movie that I’ve been waiting to see for months, and it did not disappoint. In fact, it far exceeded my expectations. Seeing it projected on the big screen was a cinematic treat that will definitely be the film high point of my year. This is the kind of movie that graces the big screen only ever so often anymore. It’s the kind of movie that is wrapped in a seeming minimal realism and simplicity, yet is so deep and complex that your mind can spin around it infinitely. Its hardcore realism, grimy de-aestheticized vision, condensed timeframe, and relentlessly shaking hand-held camera give the film a kind a kind of snapshop sensibility. At first the film’s style seems to mask the complexity that is delivered with a handful of characters who come together in the gritty Romanian landscape for one day. Likewise, given the primary subject matter of the movie a girl obtaining an illegal abortion in communist Romania during the end of Ceau_escu’s communist regime it is easy to reduce the movie to the Romanian Abortion Movie. But to reduce this film to its basic plot and simply call it an abortion movie is to deny it the complexity and brilliance that reside at its core. Sure this is an abortion movie, and the portrait of what a woman would go through to obtain an illegal abortion in communist Romania is harrowing and horrific, but the movie reaches beyond the subject of illegal abortion. Focusing not on the girl who actually gets the abortion but on her friend who helps her, the movie provides a claustrophobic journey of one woman caught in the tangled matrix of gender and class that permeate her life in communist Romania. The film is not just about abortion, but about the female body and how it’s coded by its gender and its social status on the class spectrum.
The basic plot of the film takes place in less than 24 hours when Otilia helps her college roommate Gabi obtain an illegal abortion. Structurally the film is very similar another recent Romanian film, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, which I wrote about recently. Like in Lazarescu, the protagonist, in this case the friend Otilia, goes through a frenetic time-condensed journey and confronts ludicrous systems, class discrimination, neglect and/or abuse, medical nightmares, and a sense of overall disintegration. Oleg Mutu was cinematographer for both films, and his influence clearly is the binding glue between the two films. Mutu delivers an intentionally de-asetheticized vision, in which the ordinary minutiae of existence become symbolic of the overall corruption and dirt of the environment. Like in Lazarescu, the scenes are laden with the objects and set details of everyday life, and those seemingly innocuous and often outright ugly objects take on a kind of grisly meaning. A plastic table cloth, a telephone receiver, a sickly rose in a vase, a couple of fish in a tank, a plastic bag, toilet paper hanging from a roll, a bar of soap, a bath towel become ominous specters of a socio-political envirnoment that is in a state of corrupt decay. The exceptionally realistic sets combined with Mutu’s handheld camera and purely diegetic sound (all sound comes from within the narrative frame of the film) make for a sense that we are on an actual real-life journey with Otilia. The use of internal sound within the narrative is amazing — water dripping, cars passing, dogs barking, feet on stairs, the echoes of voices — and adds to our experience of inhabiting the camera and the literal space of the film as the camera relentlessly stalks Otilia down halls, through streets, on buses, in hotels, in cars, in bathrooms. As the camera shakes and tracks and documents Otilia, it demands that we pay witness, that we watch through the camera’s eye, that we actually become the camera as Otilia navigates her way through the obstacles and horrors that involve the abortion. In one incredible scene when Otilia first meets with the abortionist, the camera actually sits in the driver’s seat of the car while Otilia sits in the passenger seat watching the abortionist abuse an older woman (seemingly his mother). So we are witnessing Otilia as she witnesses another woman’s abuse.
This scene with the abortionist and the older woman is crucial to understanding that we are not just watching an abortion movie. The abortionist, who takes perverse pleasure in subjugating women, is a stand-in for an entire system of extreme patriarchy that subjugates women to horrific ends. The duration and framing of the abortion scene itself is simultaneously a harrowing and nightmarish document of the reality of getting an illegal abortion, but also a kind of distanced observation of women trying to maintain ground while their entire lives and bodies are being compromised by a brutal patriarchal system. While the handheld camera insists that we watch the scene from its eye, the endless dialogue and banter and tension is presented with clinical detachment. The pleasure with which the abortionist wields his power, rather than the abortion itself, is the real nightmare. The manipulative dialogue and cat-and-mouse play that he indulges in seems to go on forever. The camera witnesses the scene with its shaky yet steady eye and forces us to be locked in the room with the characters. The focus on the details of the room the ugly painting over the bed, the hideous lamps, the suitcase, the bed cover make our experience and sense of being trapped in the room all the more real. The fact that the abortionist not only gives the abortion but also forces the two young women to have sex with him moves the violation and consumption of the female body into a more global realm than just that of the abortion. The way that the sex scenes are filmed further removes the focus away from the abortion but to a more systematic consumption of the female body. We don’t see the sex occur on screen, but the emphasis is in the aftermath, particularly that of Otilia’s sexual violation. The scene in which Otilia washes her genitals after the sex seems more prolonged than Gabi’s actual abortion. Despite the fact that the movie centers on Gabi’s abortion, the film always returns to Otilia’s body and plight.
The emphasis on Otilia is critical to understanding the film as being more than just an abortion movie. The entire movie is not about the abortion per se but about Otilia being trapped in a matrix of obligation, gender, servitude, and class in her commitment to help Gabi obtain the abortion. The two women Otilia and Gabi are markedly different characters. Gabi is the total passive female body. She does nothing to help herself and depends entirely on Otilia to do everything for her. On the other hand, Otilia is the frenetically active female body who feels obligated to serve everyone Gabi, the abortionist, her boyfriend. What is quietly implied and cannot be ignored is the class differentiation between Otilia and other characters in the film. Otilia’s sense of duty and obligation comes not only from her role as a female but also from her role as one of the lower classes or “simple folk” as her boyfriend’s family and friends refer to her. One of the critically tense moments in the film (and there are many which I will talk about in a bit) revolves around Otilia leaving Gabi in the hotel right after the abortion to attend a birthday party for her boyfriend’s mother. In a scene that plays on as agonizingly slowly as the actual abortion scene in the hotel, we see Otilia suffocating in ignorant classist banter around a dinner table. Seemingly silly jovial discussion is laden with patriarchal intent, class privilege, and gender and class discrimination. During this scene in which food and talk fly back and forth in front of Otilia’s resigned face, we learn not only of Otilia’s class difference (she is “simple country folk” as opposed to the “educated city folk”), but we get to see a microcosm of age old patriarchy and class hierarchies that remained firmly in place even under the guise of communism. We see a miniature window on a world where men call the shots, women cook potatoes, and the simple folk are subservient to the privileged.
What is less obvious is how Gabi fits into this picture of class hierarchies. The two women not only occupy different roles in regards to being active (Otilia) and passive (Gabi), but it is evident through Gabi’s accent, her physical traits, and her overall sense of entitlement and privilege that there is also a class division between Otilia and Gabi. When I went to the movie the first time, I overheard many people talking about Gabi being “selfish.” Clearly she is not a sympathetic character, and we are left uneasy with her manipulation and disregard of Otilia. What isn’t overtly obvious but is embedded within the “code” of the film is that Gabi’s sense of entitlement is a result of her ancestry coming from a privileged class. The scene right after the abortion when Gabi’s legs reside passively at the bottom of the frame while the camera focuses on Otilia’s stress ravaged face beautifully and quietly shows the divide between the women. Otilia’s body is a map of tension and anxiety while Gabi lies passively smoking Otilia’s last cigarette. Though the abortion is performed on Gabi’s body, Otilia performs all the labor associated with the abortion. She makes arrangements with the abortionist, obtains a hotel, disposes of the fetus while Gabi does nothing, and what she tries to do is completely ineffectual. The entire movie centers on Otilia’s service to Gabi because Gabi couldn’t possibly endure the lowly interactions necessary to obtain the abortion. Otilia is the workhorse, and in fact the movie is more a day in the life of Otilia’s labor and service to Gabi than an actual abortion movie.
The fact that the film is an “abortion movie” that sets us up for horror and melodrama but then doesn’t deliver what we expect further subverts the idea that this film is simply a “pro-choice” movie. The film repeatedly sets us up for shocking Abortion Horror. When Otilia returns to the hotel and Gabi doesn’t answer the door, we expect to find Gabi in a pool of blood, but instead we find her quiet body in bed. When Gabi doesn’t move when Otilia calls to her, we expect her to be dead, but instead she stirs awake and says non-chalantly in regards to the fetus, “It came out. It’s in the bathroom.” The scene when Otilia disposes of the fetus is filmed as a horror narrative. The camera follows her frantically through the dark streets as she carries around the dead fetus in a bag looking for a place to get rid of it. We are set-up to think she is being stalked, robbed, or attacked by dogs, but none of that happens. Instead she throws the baby down a garbage chute with a sickening bump and thud. After Otilia disposes of the fetus and returns to the hotel and Gabi doesn’t answer the door, we again expect to find Gabi dead in a pool of blood. Instead we find her in a restaurant eating a plateful of meat. The interesting thing is that all the expected melodrama and horror is from Otilia’s perspective, and none of it comes from Gabi. It is Otilia’s perspective that lends the sense of threat, tragedy and horror to the film whereas Gabi just assumes everything can be fixed (by Otilia). This division in perception itself is a class signifier. Melodrama and horror are genres (and realities) of the simpler folk. The privileged folk assume that their worries will be taken care of by virtue of their social status.
The ending of the film is a beautiful capsule of the real horror of the film. Gabi and Otilia sit in the restaurant and agree to “never talk about this again.” In the meanwhile, we hear and see a wedding party going on in the next room affirming a system of matrimony and patriarchy. Otilia turns and looks right at the camera and at us (because in this movie we, the audience, are the camera) as if to say, “So yes, this is how it is.” The resigned acknowledgment in Otilia’s face is the real horror of the film — that life was and is like this; that woman are subject to violation and an impossible set of moral codes, obligations, and subservience; that class hierarchies persist even in the guise of communism; that tomorrow will be another day and today was one just like any other despite the horror. As Otilia looks us in the eye, we catch the reflection of headlights on the restaurant window and realize that Otilia and Gabi are trapped behind the glass, their bodies on display, caught between the wedding and the camera.
Yes, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days is an abortion movie. But it is also much more. We would be remiss in our appreciation of the complexity of the film if we didn’t look closely at everything in the movie that is not the abortion because it is in the fringe scenes, the set details, the plight of Otilia and the interactions of all the characters where we can excavate much bigger global issues in relation to class and gender. Not only that, then we can really experience and acknowledge what a truly great film this is.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at email@example.com.