The winner of the top prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival is a stunning, at times harrowing look at the plight of a young Romanian woman who, over the course of a single day, tries to help her friend procure something highly illegal and equally dangerous: an abortion.
Romania, 1987. Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), roommates at local university, pack a suitcase and prepare for what they tell their fellow students will be a two-day excursion into the city. As Gabita nervously waits in their dorm room, Otilia takes the cash they've collected -- 2,700 leu -- and pays a visit to her boyfriend, Adi (Alex Potocean), a medical student who lends her an additional 300 leu after nagging her about attending his mother's birthday party that evening. Otilia makes a tentative promise, then heads to the hotel Gabita had promised to book, only to the find that the reservation was never taken and the hotel is now completely full. Desperate to find another room in the city, Otilia finally bribes the concierge at a second, seedier hotel with the American cigarettes she bought on the black market. Otilia finally agrees to pay more than they can afford, then heads off to rendezvous with a "Mr. Bebe" (Vlad Ivanov), a man who makes it his business to help women like Gabita -- women in "trouble." A cold, quietly frightening character, Mr. Bebe is angry to learn that he won't be performing the procedure at the hotel he insisted on -- a hotel he knows is "safe" -- and even angrier when he finally meets Gabita, who's now waiting for them back at the room. Just looking at her Mr. Bebe can tell Gabita has lied about her condition: She's well into the fourth month of her pregnancy, not the second, which means that according to Romanian law, Mr. Bebe will now be committing murder. After explaining in grim detail the procedure Gabita is about to undergo -- an uterine probe of questionable sterility will cause her to miscarry in a wash of blood-- and the grisly precautions Otilia must take in disposing of the fetus, Mr. Bebe informs them both that due to the added risk he'll be incurring, his price has just gone up, and he's no longer accepting just cash.
Writer-director Cristian Mungiu purposefully sets this tensely paced film during the reign of Nicolae Ceausescu who, in an insane attempt to strengthen Romania by swelling its population, encouraged multiple pregnancies and outlawed abortion. The effort led to a catastrophic population explosion the Romanian economy could scarce support, and ultimately resulted in rampant child abandonment, homelessness, prostitution, unemployment and crime that's still endemic today. Adding to the tragedy, the ban on abortion is also believed to have led to the death of more than half a million women who sought out the services of men like Mr. Bebe and even far worse alternatives. By taking direct aim at Ceausescu's dictatorial recklessness, Mungiu's grim but gripping film also offers a less explicit warning against the pitfalls of outlawing abortion. On a slightly lighter note, he also takes a blackly funny swipe at the arrogance of Romania's bourgeoisie as well as the Romanian infrastructure: The only thing about that appears to be functioning at all effectively is the black market. The film is bold stroke that hopes to push Romanian society forward by staring into the dismal failures of its recent past, and along with the startling THE DEATH OF MR. LAZARESCU (2006), it puts current Romanian cinema firmly on the international map. (In Romanian, with English subtitles.) leave a comment --Ken Fox