A long time ago, I liked to smoke pot. A lot.
I don’t have any ethical qualms with cannabis, and for the most part I think it’s benign; but at the time, I was young and irresponsible, and I cared more about getting high than I did about other important things—like, say, going to school. Plus, I spent most of my time around people that I didn’t really like or have anything in common with, other than weed.
But cannabis did a funny thing for me—in fact, in itself, a wonderful thing. Far from just laughing a lot and getting really hungry, more often than not I’d have a kind of (grounded) quasi-psychedelic experience, consisting of what I can best describe as breakthrough spiritual and intellectual experiences and insights.
One night, sufficiently baked, I stumbled into a friend’s house where everyone was gathered around the TV, watching the movie Reqiuem for a Dream.
One of the first films of director Darren Aronofosky,¹ Reqiuem is a sort of a cult classic for amateur cinephiles—and, apparently, drug users. Now, there’s little disagreement that it’s a powerful and well-made (well-shot, well-scored, etc.) movie; but to say that it’s enjoyed on any level beyond that of craft would be the furthest thing from the truth. While the film begins in the summer of the lives of four different characters, optimistic about a better future, they slowly begin careening toward an all-encompassing drug-addicted despair, which never lets up until the film is over.
For those who’ve seen Requiem for a Dream and know anything about psychedelic experiences, they’d know that even contemplating the (willful) combination here would be insanity. And it was.
In one sense, I don’t know if this experience directly changed my life in any major way. In Requiem, the protagonists’ downfalls come mostly by way of cocaine and, eventually, heroin; and even if hadn’t seen the movie, I’m not sure if I ever would have sampled those things. I do know, however, that I had never (vicariously) experienced despair in the way that I had before this; and I carried this experience around with me more or less continuously for at least a week after it.
But it’s clearly left a longer-lasting impression on me, too. It’s been over a decade since that night, and yet just hearing the music from its soundtrack is enough to make me feel a sense of dread. More importantly, though, I think that seeing Requiem for a Dream was influential in my constructing a lens through which I viewed drug addiction in some ways—and even how I understood myself in relation to other people in general (both actual acquaintances, and in the abstract).
Because I internalized (my interpretation of) the characters’ experiences so deeply—even if they were fictional—this was a pivotal moment for me in comprehending the idea of how it might feel to be someone else. Further, many of my old friends would actually find themselves in the same situation as Requiem characters, in dealing with the effects of heroin addiction. Because these were people so close to me—figuratively and literally—I really felt the significance of how, if circumstances had been just a little bit different, I could have been the one in their shoes.
Despite all that, however, this actually isn’t the main movie that I want to talk about here. I do dwell on Reqiuem for a reason, though.
As I watched the 2007 Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the same feeling overtook me—the same empathy and dread (and existential crisis and reevaluation), like nothing else had evoked since watching Requiem; and which now, itself, has yet to be matched. And it, too, lingered long after (even with no drug use involved).
Winner of the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days centers on two dorm roommates at a university in Communist Romania, one of whom is trying to have a (late-term) abortion.
In 1967, however, Romanian leader Nicolae Ceaușescu had authorized a certain Decree 770, making both abortion and contraception illegal in Romania, save for women over 40 and in other special circumstances. In the mid 1980s, further draconian laws relating to childbirth and abortion were passed. Scholar Gale Kligman has written on some of the disastrous effects that these policies had²—among these, for example, that “[b]etween 1965 and 1989, 9,452 women died because of complications arising from illegal abortions.”³
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days explores the seedy, horrific underbelly of the illegal Romanian abortion “market,” and the lives it affected and corrupted.
I dwelt on Requiem for a Dream for several reasons, though.
Requiem is a testament to how cinema can call forth empathy, and—at least in my case—can even change the way that we think about ourselves; our place in the world, and the people in it. I’m not sure of the range of reactions others might have. For most who watch it, it’s a visceral experience. But maybe some would think that it’s just a tale of recklessness; or maybe the takeaway for them would be an affirmation that there needs to be a tougher crackdown on drugs.
I have no doubt that watching 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days will make people think about the ordeal—the horrors—of abortion in a way that most haven’t thought about or experienced before. (Minus one brief shot, there’s nothing about the film that’s gory; but the entire experience of the film is gut-wrenching.)But 4 Months is the furthest thing from an anti-abortion film. It’s about two average people—either of which you or I could have easily turned out to be—who are stuck between a rock and a hard place in a nearly unfathomable way. They live in a time and in a nation which polices one’s decision to bring life into the world (or not), in fact demanding it—but at the same time, one that was wholly unprepared to assist those who couldn’t (easily) help themselves here. Kligman writes of the situation in Romania at the time, that
In many cases, unwanted children were abandoned to the care of the paternalist state that had demanded them. That “care,” best described as systematic neglect, resulted in institutionalization of the innocent, the rise of infant AIDS, and international trafficking in babies and children through adoption. (“Political Demography,” 244)
For those who are pro-life, it’s easy to get caught up in abstractions about the child.
Had the main character of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days decided not to go through with her abortion, could her child have been the next Klaus Iohannis? Why not? But remember that anytime we suggest that, we have to remember that he or she could have been the next Ceaușescu, too.
(But both of these are red herrings, because what we should really ask is at what cost is life demanded here, if—to take the Romanian case, but also many others, too—the parents would be going out of their way to ensure a greater chance that their future child is doomed to a life of abject misery. Of course, all partners are also aware that it’s non-contraceptive sex itself that leads to a greater chance of pregnancy; but this is eminently a risk that, say, Romanian partners would have been taking even when following the accepted Catholic practice of NFP, which comes precisely from a principled pro-life stance.)
I think it’s important to emphasize here that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is eminently about the mother, not the child. Now, in this directorial decision, there was absolutely no deliberate political/ideological statement being made—in the same way that, conversely, Requiem for a Dream was not intended as an anti-drug film. Rather, again, what’s attempted in both films—and, by virtually all accounts, accomplished, too—is bringing the viewer into the world of characters whose experiences we probably wouldn’t have otherwise shared.
But, in this, I can’t help but think that the very way that 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days makes us connect with the characters actually itself inherently stands as sort of a pro-choice argument. (Or at least one that inspires more sympathy for this stance.)
The horror we feel in watching it is exclusively a horror on behalf of the two protagonists. Of course, above all, abortion is surgery; and I have no doubt that anyone who’s ever had an abortion, or is considering one, would have a nearly unbearable sympathetic reaction, in reliving or anticipating the dread of this. (Naturally, in the world of the film itself, this is compounded by the unusual and desperate circumstances that the characters find themselves in.)
And here I think of certain issues in the abortion debate relating to prenatal perception and prenatal pain. Quoting from the article just linked,
There is an emerging consensus among developmental neurobiologists that the establishment of thalamocortical connections (at weeks 22-34, reliably at 29) is a critical event with regard to fetal perception of pain, as they allow peripheral sensory information to arrive at the cortex.
Because pain can involve sensory, emotional and cognitive factors, it may be difficult to know when painful experiences are perceived, even if it is known when thalamocortical connections are established. In 2006, an opinion piece by Stuart Derbyshire in the British Medical Journal proposed that pain is dependent upon cognitive and emotional developments that occur after birth
Even the ~20-week abortion here—4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—falls in the period before this range relating to the establishment of thalamocortical connections. But more importantly, as is also suggested by that paragraph, the fetus—the child, or the child-to-be—has no larger context for processing this ordeal; something that’s crucial here. Yet it’s an ordeal which we, even as viewers, share all too easily even with these fictional characters: desperation, dread, and even the lasting effects of this experience.
[This sentence has a bit more of a spoiler, though it’s somewhat important to my larger point. Highlight the text with your mouse if you won’t be bothered by this: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days does not shy away from showing the aborted fetus—if only briefly so—and yet the last thing on our mind is who or what the child could have been.]
The Romanian case is easily characterized as extraordinary—the result of unusual historical circumstances and communist failures—and thus is easily brushed away.
But how many of these are also capitalist failures? Even more than this, is it so inconceivable that this is a world that those who would seek to enforce government control over contraception and abortion—no matter how well-intentioned—might end up creating?
⁂ ⁂ ⁂
 Before he really broke big with The Wrestler, Black Swan and Noah.
 Cf. his The Politics of Duplicity: Controlling Reproduction in Ceausescu’s Romania.
 “Political Demography: The Banning of Abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania,” 245