Trust Romania for delivering bleak, methodical yet savagely compelling dramas. The last decade has seen the Romanian New Wave moving from strength to strength – from the caustic, satirical barbs of Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu to Cristian Mungiu’s powerfully incisive social critiques 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and last year’s magnificent Beyond The Hills – all turning the post-Ceaușescu era trauma into purgative, politically damning works of art. Continuing this movement is Călin Peter Netzer’s Golden Bear-winning Child’s Pose, which recently stole the thunder from the established likes of Steven Soderbergh and Bruno Dumont at this year’s Berlinale, throwing an unflinching look at a fractured contemporary Romanian society beset by the systematic corruption of the bourgeoisie. The despicable upper middle-class is embodied here in the fur-draped, bejewelled and impeccable coiffured form of Cornelia, a Bucharest-dwelling firebrand matriarch who storms into a nearby working-class town to intervene a police investigation where her 32-year old son is involved in a motorway accident. Turning up in the police headquarters free of hysterics, heavy with bling and a whiff of serious business, we learn she’s ultra-condescending, super-manipulative and entirely up-her-own-arse, ignoring the fact that her own son has inadvertently run over and killed a poor 14-year old.
But director Netzer and Răzvan Rădulescu’s intricate screenplay refuse easy judgements, turning a police procedural inwards into a stunning character drama. Cornelia is a fierce addition to a line-up of cinematic mothers that populate our screens of late – Hye–ja Kim in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother, Jacki Weaver in David Michôd’s Animal Kingdom and Kristin Scott Thomas in Nicholas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives – all domineering mother figures whose overprotective love can often be misconstrued as psychologically detrimental Oedipal conflict. Luminiţa Gheorghiu is tremendous in the central role, temperamentally strident and efficient in her argumentations. She’s also the most realistic of the lot mentioned above, unaffected by any film noir symbolism and rather characterised by her flesh-and-blood position as a well-to-do woman who happen to belong in upper echelons of the society with formidable political connections and wealth. Watch as she manoeuvre her away with indignant police officers, brazenly negotiating witnesses through questionable ethics, and even giving her own daughter-in-law a no-nonsense dictum about the limits she’s willing to break to save her one and only son from prosecution. This is a portrait of a lioness adamant in protecting her own cub no matter which side of morality she veers into. She even goes far down as tearfully pleading in front of the victim’s family for absolution, in the film’s devastating, cathartic finale. Cornelia’s mixture of self-humiliation and wretched parental desperation is shot in extreme close-up, allowing us to carefully scrutinise the woman’s flood of emotions. It’s a heart-wrenching watch, but Gheorghiu imbues an intelligently layered performance that imbues Cornelia some riveting ambiguity. That this moment might be her most complex piece of manipulation yet, convincing the simplistic, penniless family of compassion by showing tear-strained humanity. Netzer’s camera, influenced by the Dogme-95 manifesto, leaves it all for our eyes to take and heads to ponder for ourselves.
DIRECTOR: Călin Peter Netzer | CAST: Luminiţa Gheorghiu, Bogdan Dumitrache, Natasa Raab, Ilinca Goia | SCREENPLAY: Răzvan Rădulescu | DISTRIBUTOR: Studiocanal | RUNNING-TIME: 112 mins | GENRE: Drama | COUNTRY: Romania *Child’s Pose DVD is out on 16 December, courtesy of Studiocanal.