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This Common Secret:
My Journey as an Abortion Doctor
by Susan Wicklund
(Discounted Hardcover from Amazon)
. "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" (aka, 4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile)

When a film details something of keen, contemporary interest to everyone on the planet, the resulting drama can produce a grip that might be described as paralyzing. But only if the filmmakers present it in the right way. This film is that sort of experience, relentless in its unsparing objectivity and realism on the subject of unwanted pregnancy and abortion. Just tell me that isn't as universal, and secretive, and attention getting a theme as there is!

The events take place in a Romanian dormitory room as Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), an attractive student, is hurriedly packing a suitcase. Roommate Otilia (Anamaria Marinca), more controlled and ever pragmatic, offers reminders and guidance to keep Gabita on track. It's 1987 when the political backdrop is the impending fall of Ceausescu and his communist government.

We're not immediately told what the packing and hotel arrangements are for but soon understand that Gabita is pregnant and is following a to-do list according to her abortionist's instructions, most of which goes wrong because of Gabita's deceptive miscalculations. Otilia has taken on the full load of caring for her roommate despite increasing romantic complications with her boyfriend. The man giving the instructions is Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov).

Neither he nor Gabita have any idea what problems are in store for them. First, the hotel he picked out has no reservation for the women, forcing Otilia to find another one; then it's Otilia who shows up for the meeting with him at a predesignated spot instead of the person receiving the procedure.

He's livid and intimidating as he explains to Otilia that the first meeting with his client -- not a surrogate or a representative -- is an essential part of a procedure designed to avoid going to prison for 10 years. As he sharply lectures Otilia about the dangers of departing from his exact routine we get the distinct feeling that he's going to be accomodative.

For a reason net yet explained, he is clearly willing to compromise in order to go through with the plan. When he discovers that Gabita is at a far later stage of pregnancy than she said, and when Gabita offers him an insufficient amount of money when he never even mentioned what payment he required, he lectures in great detail and with surprising patience just what he's willing to accept.

In a film that's remarkable for many reasons, this role and Mr. Ivanov's smooth, threatening delivery of a morally-challenged abortionist with a decided human side, is a high point for the role of anti-hero. He's threatening and patient, detached and concerned about his mother. For a criminal in any society or time frame, this abortionist is about as far from the cliche' as you can get. He's also a singular creation by writer-director Cristian Mungiu.

Another arresting idea that proves to be a cornucopia of drama is the portrayal of a pregnant woman who, through fear and anxiety, does everything she can do to control a situation she's not the master of. Her lies and deceit not only could wreck the life of the unknown abortionist but the life of her closest friend who has to deal with the consequences at every turn. Yet, Vasiliu keeps her human and sympathetic. But not as much as Marinca doing Otilia.

Marinca's performance is a knockout of naturalism, conveying a sense of almost documentary realism, as fine a sense of an actual person being intimately observed as you can find. Mark it up to a perfect balance of selfless absorption in a role and an absense of theatrical exaggeration.

Another part of the grip Mungiu imposes on you comes from the careful plotting and the microscopic detailing of each circumstance as it arises. Most profoundly riveting are the steps of the abortion methodology, whose depiction must be a first in the new world order of what can be shown in film. My memory of becoming so completely locked into the events on screen goes back to "Maria Full of Grace," in which the subject of fascination was the young girl's training to become a narco mule for the Columbian syndicate and the suspense of her processing through customs with bags of heroin in her stomach. If you love drama, that and this are two must-see films.

The production budget could be described as threadbare. Outdoor night scenes are painfully underlit. It may be shocking to realize that a search for a soundtrack album would be futile -- there's not a beat of music here. It's as though it's a what-you-see is what-you get in terms of bald realism. Instead of aural enhancement, you hear footsteps, breathing, every knock and sigh -- a spartan directness with the story and its emotional flow. No distractions allowed.

This may also reflect the destitute times and there's much ink about how this relates to a spare and desperate society torn by political unrest, but it's none of that. This is a universal story that could unfold similarly in any society that doesn't allow legal abortion, without special reference to Romania, to Ceaucescu or, even, the particular year of its setting.

And, while the final effect of the subject may leave an aftertaste of depression over the choices some people make, the joy of being overcome by such rare talent in storytelling is, actually, uplifting. This fine work, spare and devoid of frills, tells us with a distinct voice why we love movies.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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