In the last few years, Romania has gone from a virtual nonentity on the world-cinema map to a veritable factory of film-festival prize winners. The so-called Romanian New Wave got its first big boost with Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" (2005), a nearly three-hour opus that chronicles the final passage of an old-timer (pointedly named Dante) through the circles of hell that constitute the Romanian healthcare system. (It opened in the U.S. in 2006 and ended up on many critics' 10-best lists.)
Last year, Corneliu Porumboiu's "12:08 East of Bucharest," a deadpan comedy centered on a TV talk show commemorating the 1989 overthrow of dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, won the award for best first feature at Cannes. The movement's quick ascendancy was sealed in May when 39-year-old Cristian Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" -- screening Saturday and Monday at AFI Fest -- took the top prize at Cannes, the Palme d'Or.
Humane but unsentimental, "4 Months" tracks in meticulous, almost real-time detail the harrowing process of obtaining a backroom abortion in Ceausescu-era Bucharest -- the title refers to the duration of the pregnancy. (Among other things, Mungiu's film provides an unsettling counterpoint to the squeamishness with which American movies tackle the subject of unwanted pregnancy: See "Knocked Up," "Waitress," the forthcoming "Juno").
The film's focus turns out not to be pregnant Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) but her college roommate Otilia (a wonderful Anamaria Marinca), who has assumed a take-charge role on behalf of her hapless friend. It falls on Otilia to find the abortionist, secure the cash, and book the hotel room where the procedure will take place. The emphasis on this character, forever negotiating and improvising, allows "4 Months" -- which Mungiu has said is not really a film about abortion -- to take shape as a vivid portrait of life in a totalitarian regime, or more to the point, in a barter economy where the ruthless logic of the black market has polluted most human interactions.
Mungiu's bruising style favors hand-held, long-take cinematography (the director of photography, Oleg Mutu, also shot "Mr. Lazarescu") and calls to mind the propulsive, intensely focused films of two-time Palme d'Or winners Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. Never surrendering its grip on the viewer, "4 Months" is the rare film with gravity and speed -- a moral tale in the form of a suspense thriller.
"4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." In Romanian with English subtitles. MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes. Showing Saturday and Monday at ArcLight Cinemas, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 464-4226.