Cold Altruism: Cristian Mungiu’s “Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days”

Much has been written about the slow pace and the role of time in Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days. Less has been said about the societal decay it portrays.

This Romanian film, written directed by Cristian Mungiu, tells the story of an abortion. But it also depicts, intensely, the relationship between two women, and shows how an impersonal, heartless regime (Ceauescu’s Romania, in this case) can leave its citizens with nothing but impersonal, heartless relationships.

Two women, Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), are students at a Romanian university, roommates in a dilapidated dormitory that looks more like a hospital. They, and their fellow-students, spend as much time trading in black-market goods as in studying.

The two women, we soon discover, are preparing to meet an illegal abortionist (abortions were illegal and severely punished under Ceauescu) in a hotel that will serve as a hospital. Gabita has gotten pregnant—four months, three weeks, and two days ago. We don’t know how; she never mentions the man involved, either in love or in anger. Otilia makes the arrangements. The abortionist does his work after extracting sexual favors from Otilia as part of his payment; the fetus is lost as Otilia attends a small birthday party her boyfriend’s mother throws for herself, and which the boyfriend will not let her miss.

Otilia sacrifices her studies, her money, and her body on behalf of her roommate. She puts herself in considerable personal danger and, in a harrowing sequence, bears the fetus in her purse across town to dispose of it. Yet Gabita takes her roommate’s actions matter-of-factly, offers no real thanks, and evinces little gratitude. In the film’s final scene, Otilia, after throwing the fetus down an incinerator chute in a distant apartment building, comes back to the hotel to find Gabita sitting in the hotel’s fancy restaurant, having ordered a huge dinner despite the fact that she has borrowed heavily from Otilia and other friends to finance the operation.

So why does Otilia do it? We find out when she and her boyfriend have a fight in his room while the birthday party is in progress. Otilia is from a small town working class family; she is without protection or security in the big city. She sleeps with her boyfriend and worries that she, too, may be pregnant. She does not trust her his assurances that he will take responsibility if she is. His family is well-off by Romanian standards—his mother is a chemist, his father a doctor, and their home is the only happy, warm, colorful place we see in the film. Otilia is sure she does not belong there and that she will be abandoned the minute she becomes inconvenient.

She knows that if she herself needs an abortion—or if she has to get through any other crisis—she will be dependent on her dorm friends to get it. In other words, everything she does for Gabita cold, direct altruism. She scratches Gabita’s back because she knows that she will probably need Gabita to scratch hers. It’s not a matter of friendship. It’s purely utilitarian.

This is the world Otilia lives in—a world in which every human emotion is suffocated under the imperative of survival. It’s a world created by a state that cares only for itself as an institution, and nothing for the individuals in its society. The rich and well-connected can manage, but the poor lead lives not only of material want, but of emotional want as well.

This story takes place in Ceauescu’s Romania in 1987, but the bleak, colorless life of fear, desperation, and loneliness that Otilia leads is not a product of Communist ideology. There are plenty of Otilias in market-economy societies as well. It’s the life of the powerless anywhere where leaders don’t care.

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