It’s not often that a film set in a distant time and place can offer a searing critique of modern American society. More through circumstance than deliberate design 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days does just that. Initially released alongside three other films dealing with the topic of unintended pregnancy, it is the only one of the four willing to seriously engage with the issue of abortion.
Set in communist Romania during the final days of the Ceauşescu regime 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days follows the story of Otilia, a college student who has agreed to help her roommate obtain an abortion. Not only is the procedure completely banned with no exceptions by draconian pro-life legislation, but both patient and doctor may be charged with murder and sentenced to jail time should anything go wrong. Although hindered by unexpected obstacles, the two persevere and Gabita successfully terminates her pregnancy. Meanwhile Otilia struggles to process the experience.
The message of the film is powerful: it is neither explicitly for nor against abortion, and makes no judgments about the morality of the procedure itself, but the trials inflicted upon the two women make clear that when abortion is illegal, desperate people will seek it out anyway, and it is these vulnerable women who suffer.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days offers the viewer not only a glimpse into life under an oppressive government overseas and many years past, but also reveals a disturbing trend in American cinematic politics. Debuting at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, to much acclaim, the film was one of many in a year of stories revolving around the premise of unplanned pregnancy. However, in none of the high-profile American films is abortion presented as a viable option, or even considered for more than a few minutes of screen-time. Juno, Waitress, and Knocked Up all sharply diverge from Gabita’s story from the very first moment the characters realize they are pregnant. The women’s feelings about their unexpected pregnancies are quickly if not immediately subsumed by images of morning sickness, ever-expanding waistlines, baby clothes, cribs and finally, in all three films, culminating in excruciating labor scenes.
In Waitress and Knocked Up, abortion is mentioned for a few seconds by well-meaning observers and is immediately shot down, never to be brought up again. Allison, the pregnant protagonist in Knocked Up, has a career that is just taking off, is not in a relationship, lives with her sister’s family and is aware that the soon-to-be father is an unemployed deadbeat. One would think alternative options would at least warrant a moment of consideration. However, the well-meaning friends who euphemistically urge Ben and Alison to “take care of” the pregnancy are portrayed insensitive and cruel. The subtext is that the only way a woman can take responsibility for an unplanned pregnancy is by forcing herself into a committed long term relationship with the father and devoting herself to the child above all other considerations. As we watch Alison struggle with family drama, fears of losing her job, and a boyfriend who will not bear any responsibility, the movie seems to be more about punishing a woman for having casual sex than anything else.
In Waitress, the message is far more sinister. Trapped in a controlling and abusive marriage, Jenna spends the duration of the movie trying to run away without her husband realizing her plans. More than once, he discovers evidence of her attempts to leave and becomes ever more suspicious and controlling. Each time she concocts elaborate lies which temporarily keep him at bay, but result in a progressive restriction of her freedoms. The comedy’s relatively lighthearted treatment of the subject ignores the grim statistic that a woman’s chances of being murdered by an intimate partner increase by seventy percent after attempting to leave an abusive relationship, and also glosses over the disturbing fact that homicide is a leading cause of death in pregnant women.
While it is possible to write a comedy about almost any subject, it is simply irresponsible to neglect addressing the full subtleties of domestic violence, and the difficult compromises many pregnant women are forced to make to avoid putting themselves in greater danger.
Juno is notable for even the token mention of abortion, and for abortion being the protagonist’s first choice. What makes this a politically-acceptable narrative in today’s American cinema is that Juno ultimately is intimidated into choosing adoption by a pro-life protester she encounters outside the clinic. While one must credit writer Diablo Cody for addressing the possibility at all, and for casting abortion in a neutral light, it does not say much for the current state of American culture when even our independent filmmakers lack the courage to tackle this topic head-on.
Films such as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are as rare as they are important. However, it doesn’t look like this is a film that would have been produced in the US. Perhaps now that it has been released on DVD it will be able to reach a wider audience and provide a balance to our conservative cinematic culture. There is not as much difference between 1987 Romania and 2008 America as we would like to believe. In both places abortion can’t be talked about openly, regardless of the fact that for many women, given their circumstances, it is a necessary option. It has been argued that our films don’t feature abortion because a terminated pregnancy leaves no story to tell. Cristian Mungiu’s masterpiece proves this line of reasoning false. It seems more likely that American filmmakers simply do not have the courage necessary to incorporate truly thought-provoking and controversial issues into their films.