Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) has agreed to help Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) have an abortion, an illegal operation in Romania in the late 1980s. The two students, roommates in a dog-eared dormitory in Bucharest, have scraped together money for a cheap hotel room and fee for the abortionist, a man named Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) with unclear credentials and dubious motives. Gabita, self-centered and distracted, fails to confirm the room reservation and sends Otilia to meet the abortionist in her place, raising his suspicions…and his price. By the time Gabita arrives at the more expensive hotel, barely prepared for the coming ordeal, both young women realize their lives are about to change.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, surprise winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a ragtag tour de force, a low-budget, high-drama independent marvel that reinvigorates cinéma-vérité. Far more stark and severe than The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or 12:08 East of Bucharest, two other Romanian films that have received universal critical acclaim, this first feature by under-40 filmmaker Cristian Mungiu reveals unexpected depth and intensity. The movie’s simplicity—one take per scene, no dollies or cranes, no panning or tilting—suits its somber subject and raw emotion. It’s impossible not to be swept up in the events that unfold before us in compressed real time.

Fortunately for Mungiu, his aesthetics are in sync with his resources (“I only shoot locations; I don’t like sets”). He rehearses and rewrites until he’s convinced of his material (“I insist that actors know the lines by heart in absolute detail”). He economically establishes mise-en-scène with small but telling details (“A pack of Kent cigarettes was much more important than the money you paid for it and you couldn’t solve anything without it”). Paradoxically, Mungiu isn’t a realist, not in the usual sense. He uses the camera as Expressionists used paint, distorting and heightening the tangible world to reveal latent emotional truth. Characters deliver lines out of frame, reinforcing the clandestine nature of life in the communist regime and the disorientation of the immediate experience; they conduct conversations behind transparent glass, unseen except for reflected light reminding us of invisible barriers. Cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who also lensed The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, lingers on Otilia, in long close-ups that convey fear and anxiety without dialogue or action, or he chases after her with a handheld camera, the jangled motion conveying her panic.

The subject of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in itself induces apprehension and dread, regardless that abortion is now legal and (presumably) safer in Romania. Mungiu has spoken about the politics of the Ceausescu era (“Abortion lost any moral connotation and was rather perceived as an act of rebellion and resistance against the regime”), but his movie focuses on personal issues. Otilia, more conscious and conscientious than the self-absorbed Gabita, ends up taking responsibility for her friend’s dilemma, prostituting herself to pay off the abortionist and later disposing of the fetus. She may be pregnant, too, so her actions are difficult to interpret: Is she compromising herself because she is loyal to a friend in distress, or is she working through a scenario she knows she will soon face, a baptism by fire (forgive the unintended pun)?

It’s interesting that Mungiu wrote a screenplay set a quarter-century ago, which in Romania appears more like the 1950s, the decade of Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake. Lots of movies, plays, television shows and novels continue to address abortion, but contemporary protagonists, men as well as women, view choice in terms of self-fulfillment or abstract ethical issues: Will a child enrich me, would I be a good parent, should I bring another life into this troubled world? 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days harks back to a time when unwanted pregnancies were matters of self-survival. Movies made during this time were hamstrung by censorship, but young authors such as John Updike and Philip Roth dared to make the taboo topic (along with contraception) the focal point of their early work. It shouldn’t surprise us if we see more films adapted from novels of this era, a time fading from living memory but rich in human drama.