A gloomy sense of impending, implacable doom hangs over "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," an abortion drama set in the authoritarian Romania of 1987 that won the grand prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival.

The film opens with opaque small talk in the drab college dormitory shared by Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia (Anamaria Marinca). They pack a valise with soap, cigarettes, money and other necessities for some outing. Gabita is vulnerable, nervous, withdrawn; it's up to the pragmatic Otilia to barter and haggle for the supplies.

Gradually it becomes clear that the young women aren't packing for a weekend getaway, but for a clandestine rendezvous with an abortionist, an illegal act in a nation where women were called upon to breed as their patriotic duty. Director Cristian Mungiu uses Gabita's dilemma as entry point for an examination of how people in a repressive state adapt to circumstances. The answer is rarely well, be they victims like Gabita or fixers like Otilia.

Mungiu's suspenseful film unfolds in long, unbroken takes that stamp a seal of doom on routine activities. Booking a hotel room, Otilia must negotiate probing and suspicious questions from the clerk, who is as haughty as a police bureaucrat interrogating a conspirator. When the abortionist Mr. Bebe (cold-eyed Vlad Ivanov) sets out his implements, the lingering shot of probes and chemicals and gauze could come from a documentary.

Mungiu doesn't require a soapbox to make his points about this society; he can expose the moral and material poverty of late-Communist life with a simple tracking shot down a grungy hotel corridor.

He is also excellent at directing his actors. Otilia leaves the room once the loathsome Mr. Bebe sets to work, going off to a birthday party for her boyfriend's mother where the jolly small talk seems monstrous. Later, her nighttime wanderings through Bucharest's ugly high-rises and alleyways are electric with foreboding. Marinca painstakingly underplays the scenes, never underlining what we already know she feels.

Otilia seems to have the only spark of kindness in this totalitarian world, but Mungiu doesn't let her off the hook for her actions. The abortion and its aftermath are presented as horrific. Helping Gabita escape disgrace and poverty might not have been the right thing to do. Even if it was, her generosity comes at a terrible price.

The finale, a silent, squirm-inducing face-off between two shellshocked characters over a dinner of organ meat, is more eloquent than any overt prolife/prochoice debate could hope to be. It's a fitting end to a brilliant and discomfiting film.

Colin Covert • 612-673-7186