Grade: A-

With its long takes, stationary compositions and unadorned dialogue, Cristian Mungiu’s grimly realistic story about the difficulty of securing a secret abortion in communist Romania might initially seem like a simple exercise in cinema verite, but to understand it merely in those terms shortchanges its artistry. “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”—the precise time the pregnancy to be terminated has progressed—skillfully employs an ultra-naturalistic style to make points about the suffocating character of the Ceausescu regime and, in particular, its treatment of women. The picture’s stripped-down style is integral to its substance.

The picture opens in a dismal university dormitory where Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) is trading and borrowing in preparation for taking her withdrawn roommate Gabita (Laura Vasiliu) to procure an illegal abortion. A long scene in which she tries to get a hotel room captures with stunning simplicity the callousness of the bureaucratic state in which they’re trapped, and her succeeding meeting with the sinister abortionist Mr. Bebe (Vlad Ivanov) quietly shows the equal indignity of having to deal with blackmarketeers.

But it’s the following sequence with Otilia, Gabita and Bebe in the hotel room that’s the picture’s emotional centerpiece, a portrait of emotional emptiness, brutality and degradation all the more wrenching for being so matter-of-fact. Inserting a scene showing Odilia’s visit to her boyfriend’s home the same night to help celebrate his mother’s birthday, with the prattle of family and friends contrasting with the deadly serious business happening back at the hotel, only deepens the sense of anguish. And the final reel, in which Odilia must return to her roommate and deal with the result of the abortion, is presented with stunning directness.

This is obviously not a film that’s easy to watch, but it is one of remarkable power. Without calling attention to themselves, the performers fit perfectly into Mungiu’s near-documentary approach, with Marinca in particular achieving the sort of realism rarely encountered on screen, and the crew, headed by cinematographer Oleg Mutu, prove that the most ostensibly simple of devices can carry enormous weight when skillfully employed.

In any environment the narrative of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” would be compelling, but situating it in the context of Ceausescu’s waning days, in a Romania of shabby buildings and dark, deserted streets, only increases its intensity. This is a searing indictment of a society gone wrong as well as a harrowing personal story, and the fact that it’s not among the Oscar nominees for best foreign-language film is yet another Academy scandal.