In much the same way that Brokeback Mountain was described by many as "the gay cowboy movie" upon its release, Cristian Mungiu's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has been saddled with the unfortunate sobriquet "the Romanian abortion movie" ever since it picked up the Palme D'Or at this year's Cannes Film Festival. It's both a lazy description and a misguided one; for while Mungiu's bleak and brilliant picture does deal with the misadventures of two Romanian students seeking an illegal termination, the film is primarily concerned with depicting the harsh realities of life under the watchful eye of the state. Set in the late 1980's, shortly before the fall of Ceauşescu's regime, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days presents a society where movements are restricted, where the simple act of checking into a hotel can lead to an interrogation, and where the black market is rife with contraband goods. It is in this atmosphere that Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) tries to help her naïve friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) with her "problem", putting herself at serious risk in the process. When freedom of choice has been taken away from you, the choices you do make can have the gravest consequences.
Of the two central figures, Gabita is the one who is carrying a child, but 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is Otilia's story all the way. It is she who has to make arrangements for the procedure, with her friend being too careless and passive to take care of things herself, and it is the resourceful Otilia who must think on her feet when Gabita's poor decision-making lands the pair in hot water with the cruelly named abortionist Mr Bébé (Vlad Ivanov). The significance of the film's title becomes clear at this point: Under Romanian law, an abortion is upgraded to a murder charge at the 4-month point, and when Mr Bébé discovers the length of Gabita's pregnancy, he decides the girls should expect to pay a higher price for such a risky endeavour.
There's a horrible inexorability to the way events escalate for Otilia and Gabita, and Mungiu – in his second feature – allows his narrative to develop with the sure hand of a seasoned filmmaker. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days unfolds in a series of long, unbroken takes, with the camera either acting as a static observer or sitting just behind Otilia's shoulder as she makes her way from one dangerous situation to another. The approach recalls the work of the Dardennes brothers, with Mungiu displaying the same ability to find incredible tension in seemingly banal situations. A couple of scenes here are so taut they almost had me gasping for breath, starting with the fractious negotiations between Bébé and the two girls, where the abortionist delights in exploiting their desperation and abusing his position of power over them. This performance, from Vlad Ivanov, is one of the most chilling and perfectly honed pieces of acting imaginable; his measured delivery has a sinister tone as he manipulates the situation in his favour and, when pushed, his isolated eruptions are terrifying.
From this point onwards, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days just doesn't let up in its unremitting tension, particularly during a nail-biting sequence in which Otilia finds herself trapped at a friend's birthday party while Gabita is left alone, waiting for Bébé's probe to take effect. The camera focuses on Otilia's face, an oasis of stillness amid the random party chatter, and when she finally manages to leave she hurries across the pitch-black streets of Bucharest to her friend in need. For all she knows, Gabita might have bled to death in the interim, and the sense of urgency and fear in these scenes is so great we almost have to watch it through our fingers.
But we do not look away, because our emotions have become so entwined with these characters' fates. The performances from Marinca and Vasiliu are so rich and empathetic, it's impossible not to feel a growing sense of anxiety as they wade ever further into such unsafe waters. They're a mismatched couple – Gabita is such a hapless character who seems to think that her problems will disappear if she just ignores them, while Otilia seems to possess boundless reserves of courage and resolve – but the bond between the pair feels wonderfully authentic, and that's another reason why the description of this film as "the Romanian abortion movie" is so wide of the mark. At its most basic level 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a moving study of female friendship and loyalty, and any attempt to find some kind of pro-choice/pro-life message in the picture would be pointless and reductive.
Despite the generally exceptional level of his direction, Mungiu missteps on one occasion – treating viewers to a lingering close-up of an aborted foetus that feels like an unnecessarily explicit blow – but for the most part his work is faultless. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a stunning work; it is filmmaking stripped to the basics and yet it manages to be as gut-wrenchingly gripping as any thriller. After last year's outstanding The Death of Mr Lazarescu, this picture offers further proof that Romanian cinema is in rude health, with young directors willing to explore the legacy of the country's past and to find human stories with a universal significance.