Last year's Palme d'Or winner at Cannes, Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" ("4m3w2d," for all the in-the-know moviegoers) is the latest foreign film to be embraced by the critical elite, appearing on nearly everyone's Top 10 lists last year.
Coming from Romania, the same country that gave us 2006's universally beloved-by-cineastes foreign film, Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," "Months" continues in the brutally bleak neorealism that made "Lazarescu" such a critical Top 10 favorite.
The movie, set in Romania in 1987, focuses on Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), a young college student. She spends one day arranging an abortion for her fragile, naive roommate (Laura Vasiliu), venturing out to snatch up a hotel room and getting the abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) to commit the act.
Even though it is her roommate who will go through the procedure, the movie makes it obvious that this is Otilia's story. Save for a couple of scenes, Mungiu's hand-held camera follows Otilia everywhere she goes, making sure the audience is just as harried and on edge as she is.
"Months" is indeed an experience you may commend yourself for just getting all the way through. (That's kinda what I did.) It's the sort of graphic, gloomy, quietly unsettling film where even the most mundane, trivial act is filmed with queasy, distant unease.
With Mungiu showing off his flair for long takes and cold visuals, nearly each scene is a tense, nerve-riling event you can't help but feel hopelessly trapped in.
But, of course, he could also be visually, aesthetically capturing just how dismal and distressing living in Romania was back in the day. With stark yet slick cinematography from Oleg Mutu, Mungiu makes walking the streets of Bucharest just as restless an experience as taking part in an abortion.
"Months" is a well-made, definitely engulfing movie. So why do I find myself not fawning over it like every other critic?
For one thing, since it's a movie about abortion, you come into the theater already knowing that things are going to be, shall we say, not hopeful. (Mungiu adds an extra political punch by setting the movie during the '80s, to emphasize how especially jacked up things were during Ceausescu's communist rule.)
And it appears obvious that Mungiu is making "Months" as his liberating, art-house, feminist adventure, with Otilia serving as its me-against-the-world heroine.
Even though she's not the one having the abortion, she lets it be known that no one can possibly understand what she's going through. She even passive-aggressively shuts out her clueless boyfriend (Alexandru Potocean), who just wants to have her come to his parents' place for dinner.
(With him and the abortionist -- a calm, precise fixer who slowly reveals himself as the scuzz bucket you knew he would be -- serving as the movie's main male characters, the male species doesn't really come out looking springtime fresh in this.)
"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is a movie you may end up respecting more than outright gushing over.
Mungiu's attempt to show how sisters were (and still are) doing it for themselves in eastern Europe is admirable, even if you do get the feeling that everyone was culturally in the same struggling boat back then.
Still, it's a blunt yet delicately handled movie about abortion, a clobbering, 800-pound elephant that Hollywood still hasn't figured out how to tame.