Film Review: Child's Pose

Romania&#8217;s official entry for Best Foreign Language Film in this year&#8217;s Oscar race, <i>Child&#8217;s Pose</i> showcases the considerable talent of New Wave luminary Luminita Gheorghiu.
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The Romanian New Wave crested in the mid-noughts: In 2005, Cristi Puiu won le Prix un certain regard at Cannes with his black comedy The Death of Mr. Lazarescu; in 2006, Corneliu Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest garnered le Camera d'or; in 2007, Cristian Mungiu claimed the coveted Palme d'or with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days. This much-acclaimed, if loosely defined, group of filmmakers were soon assigned their own movement. “There is an almost palpable impulse to tell the truth, to present choices, conflicts and accidents without exaggeration or omission,” wrote New York Times critic A.O. Scott in 2008. “This is a form of realism, of course, but its motivation seems to be as much ethical as aesthetic, less a matter of verisimilitude than of honesty.”

The appeal of Romanian New Wave filmmakers lies in their not-so-subtle satire of a society inured to injury and insult, to the alienation that comes with the loss of agency, purpose and opportunity. In their films’ fatalistic worlds, people make plans for dinner while others lie dying before them, arrange abortions in hotel rooms bartered for with cigarettes, even conduct exorcisms, studiously ignoring the crimes and misdemeanors unfolding before them except to locate blame elsewhere when things, inevitably, turn out badly.

Calin Peter Netzer is the latest director to ride the wave. His third feature, Child’s Pose, awarded the Golden Bear at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, couldn’t be more Romanian, if now not so new. Netzer’s fidgety handheld camera will be familiar to anyone who has watched these films, as will be his attention to diegetic sound—a random man beats a rug in a courtyard while the film’s main characters quietly confront one another. The sets appear to be “found,” as though Netzer plunked down his actors in actual homes, offices and shopping malls and simply turned on his camera. Then there’s the curious affinity of Eastern European moviemakers for long takes in moving cars—Netzer obliges with two tense rides that frame the film, understandable in Child’s Pose since vehicular homicide is the reason for the movie.

After establishing his milieu—the insular, self-regarding world of bourgeois Bucharest—and the relationships between his characters, which oscillate between captious and sycophantic, Netzer begins his story proper when Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu), an architect and set designer, learns that her only son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), has run over a child on a highway outside the city. She rushes to the police station where he’s being held for questioning and blood tests, passing the scene of the accident on the way, and immediately begins to bully and manipulate the incompetent and unscrupulous officers ostensibly in charge. Cornelia realizes what’s at stake: While the unsupervised boy darted recklessly into traffic, Barbu most certainly was speeding, and if proved so in court, could face a charge of manslaughter.

Child’s Pose chews on notions of justice and responsibility, the situation allowing Netzer ample opportunity to lampoon the self-absorption of the entitled class as well as the cupidity of those who envy and ape them, but the filmmaker is more interested in deconstructing a mother’s obsessive love, if that’s the right word, for her son. Gheorghiu, a marvelous actress who has appeared in numerous Romanian New Wave films, delivers a disturbing performance as a woman who can’t let go of her boy, in fact, can’t control her need to possess him, to live through him, to smother him with suffocating affection. Dumitrache, who also lists impressive New Wave credits, is her perfect foil, sullen, self-absorbed, yet in the end sympathetic to the audience, who can only feel fear and pity for a man raised by the Romanian version of Sophie Portnoy.

Or perhaps not. Child’s Pose offers little opportunity for empathy. None of the characters are likeable, with the possible exception of the grieving peasant family, themselves consumed with anger and recrimination. The film’s long climactic scene, during which Cornelia seems to experience an epiphany as she pleads for mercy and forgiveness, could easily be interpreted as a bravado performance of a woman who knows her theatre. In the cruelly comic reels of Romanian cinema, all the world’s a stage, and life a farce that must go on.