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Cristian Mungiu’s superb and upsetting film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, which captured the Palme d’Or last year at Cannes and went into U.S. release last week, may present a similar quandary for the right-to-life movement. The story of a young Romanian woman and her friend who suffer unspeakable ordeals as one of them seeks an abortion, it takes place in 1987 when Ceausescu still held sway and the procedure was a serious crime. You might say Mungiu has depicted what happened to Romanians when they fucked during communism and didn’t take precautions.

The film is, by implication, decidedly pro-choice. It paints a gruesome picture of an oppressive regime and the inhumane consequences for everyone involved when abortion is branded illegal. These Romanian women don’t behave like the title character in Juno, an American teenager who also becomes pregnant by accident but chooses instead to give her baby up to an infertile yuppie couple.

Adoption is not an option discussed in 4 Months. And no wonder, given what has been widely reported about abhorrent conditions inside Romanian orphanages. The fate of the country’s many unwanted babies has been wrenchingly documented in photographs by James Nachtwey and in films such as Edit Belzberg’s Children Underground (2001).

Romania’s legal history vis-à-vis abortion was for many years the inverse of America’s. To raise birth rates Ceausescu in 1966 enacted his notorious State Decree No. 770--it ruled abortion illegal for any woman under 45 who had not yet produced four children--just as the procedure was being decriminalized by U.S. state legislatures and courts, culminating in the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. With the fall of communism, one of the first acts of the Romanian transitional government was to repeal the statutes against abortion--with the result that it now has by far the highest rate in Europe (78 per 1,000 women aged 15-44 as of 1996).

The 40-year old Mungiu, whom I spoke to during the New York Film Festival last fall, sees his film as less about abortion than “about friendship and what you would do for someone else.” Even though it is nothing if not a “women’s picture,” he downplayed any feminist message. “Abortion is not a male or female issue,” he said. Nonetheless, he couldn’t deny the film’s political ramifications.

Born in Lasi, the former Moldavian capital, Mungiu lived under the ban for the first 21 years of his life. Before setting to work on the screenplay, he interviewed abortionists (“to make sure I wasn’t talking nonsense”) as well as friends and crew members. To bring the actors closer to the era, he brought in a group of women who had performed or undergone the illegal act. “These women are still very cynical,” he said. “They didn’t show any moral judgment. They talked clinically, like doctors.”

There was speculation, because the film is set in Mungiu’s home town, that a creepy abortionist, played by Vlad Ivanov, was based on a real person. On its release in Romania last summer the press identified several supposed real-life models. But, according to Mungiu, the figure is a composite. “When we began to shoot the film, we discovered that everybody on the set had a story like this,” he said. “One of the fellows behind the camera told us about his wife who had an abortion on her kitchen table.”

After the Romanian screening, women approached him and related one horrifying story after another. There was the fiancee who became pregnant and was promptly dumped by her husband-to-be before the wedding. “It was inconceivable to have a child out of wedlock then, as difficult as having an abortion,” he said. She was lucky to find someone in a tiny village who agreed to do it. “He took her to the basement and showed her two large jars, one of water and the other of acid. He said that it the procedure went well, the fetus would go in the water. If it didn’t, he would put her in the acid and no one would ever know what had happened to her.”

Money and class determined access to abortions under Communism as well as elsewhere. A Bulgarian visa was highly coveted because it allowed access to the procedure. Romanians scammed birth control pills from Hungary or USSR. But in the final days of the regime, as the restrictions against abortion intensified, government officials would go into factories and subject female workers to gynecological exams in order to register which women were pregnant. “To make sure they didn’t leave.”

Mungiu had to help his two lead actresses, Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, with the history they were recreating. Both young women had a hard time imagining the sacrifices their characters are called on to make in the film. “I had to talk with them a lot about how difficult it was to survive then, because this was not something they would do,” said Mungiu. “People tend to forget now that nobody expected communism would come to an end.”

After 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days won the Palme d’Or, Mungiu became a national hero. Despite its portrayal of Romania as squalid and corrupt, the film sold 50,000 tickets in four weeks and topped Ratatouille at the box office. There are only 35 cinemas in the entire country, however, so Mungiu fundraised over the summer and organized a caravan that has been touring the film to remote cities and towns.  No matter their politics or their histories, Mungiu’s fellow Romanians can’t do what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences inexplicably did only last week: pretend that one of the best films of 2007 doesn’t exist.

Richard B. Woodward is an arts critic in New York.

By Richard B. Woodward