Ah, Armond White. Sometimes he's brilliant, sometimes he's a parody of himself. White displays his ridiculous side once again with his negative review of this terrific, deeply humanist new film which won last year's Cannes Palme d'Or. If the Romanian New Wave movies like this and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu weren't getting such praise from his colleagues in New York, he'd probably be praising them for their formal control, literary qualities, and insistence on moral and political questions, but since he's been beaten to the punch and remains compulsively contrarian, he has to twist himself in knots to declaim them as 'bullcrap'.
Set in Ceausescu's Romania, 1987, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days has been labelled an 'abortion movie' but, as with Mike Leigh's Vera Drake, abortion is only the movie's macguffin: the real subject of this movie is to watch how a person copes with living in a repressive society in which bribery, ID checks, and lies are pervasive. Director Cristian Mungiu uses his supporting characters to show us the different ways a person can choose to function in an inherently corrupt system (SPOILERS): one can retreat into childish helplessness, as the pregnant Gabita does; one can become an opportunistic predator, as the abortionist does; one can blithely ignore society's problems, as the guests at the dinner party do; or one can turn into an anonymous functionary, just doing one's job, as with the movie's various hotel workers and cops. Forced to navigate through these options is the movie's protagonist, Otilia, a well-meaning young woman who exists in a world in which there can be no good outcome, just a string of bleak options, and the film is the story of her harsh coming-of-age.
What makes the movie rise above its own grimness are the authenticity of the performances and direction, and the tension and momentum of the story. When Otilia finds herself trapped in the above-mentioned dinner party and a phone rings, it's as suspenseful as anything in a Hitchcock movie. Later, when Otilia wanders through the nighttime streets on a grim mission, the film becomes chaotic, pitch-black, as existentially scary and nightmarish as 28 Weeks Later or Inland Empire.
It's a terrific, unflinching achievement and Armond White does himself no favors by choosing to be obtuse, as he does here.
(PS: Added 4am) I would have to say that the film is pro-choice, if I had to label it as such, because its primary interest is to show the awfulness involved when otherwise decent people are forced to circumvent the law. Somehow Armond White, in what I can only reconcile as an example of his being so perversely liberal he becomes ultra-conservative, deems the women in this movie 'biologically irresponsible' - who's the real post-feminist? It's one of his more maddening pieces of writing in a long time.