The Loved Ones
What if you could get a sick society to submit to an X-ray? What would the picture look like? For starters, its field of vision would probably be limited, showing what was going on only within one small group, much as a standard X-ray investigates one part of a body. Although the disease would obviously not be confined to the group being investigated—the members of a family, say, or a set of people drawn together by work—you would assume the trouble could be seen in that cluster, perhaps in an acute form. Also, because there would be a lot of space separating the individuals in the group, who naturally would keep moving around, the picture might take a long time to expose—perhaps as much as two hours. Maybe you would watch the image slowly coalesce over that time, from the surface down, as the beam steadily penetrated through layer upon layer.
This impossible technology is the closest analogy I can imagine to the movies of the Romanian New Wave. Implicitly diagnostic in their purpose, cumulatively devastating in their impact, the films in this small but crucial subset of contemporary Romanian cinema practice something like the clear-sighted, unhurried concentration of Robert Bresson, but without the French master’s faith in a redemptive grace beyond the hard facts. To the Romanian filmmakers, the human drama is not existential but circumstantial—a misère that we make for ourselves, sans Dieu—which nevertheless has taken on the solidity of a permanent condition. Religious belief in these movies is at best a solace for the poor and simple; social change, a hope for the citizens of other countries. Proceeding as if their main duty were to see into the situation patiently, without blinking, the Romanian filmmakers offer the audience only two alternatives to despair: empathy and grim laughter.
When I say “Romanian filmmakers,” I am of course referring to a few interconnected people—that’s how it is with New Waves—of whom one of the most important is the screenwriter Razvan Radulescu. He contributed to the screenplays for Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Radu Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas and served as a script consultant for Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Andrei Ujica’s The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu. That’s almost a clean sweep. About the only significant director with whom Radulescu has not worked is Corneliu Porumboiu, who could have used his help, as far as I’m concerned, for his most recent picture, When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism.
Radulescu’s latest collaboration was with the director Calin Peter Netzer on the entirely characteristic drama Child’s Pose, which won the top award at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival. Now going into theatrical release in the United States, beginning in New York at Film Forum, Child’s Pose is a continually deepening drama about corruption, class divisions and generational conflict in Romania, as exposed by the aftermath of a traffic fatality.
The ubiquitous Luminita Gheorghiu, indispensable woman of Romanian cinema, plays Cornelia, an affluent and well-connected theater designer and architect whose bitter, throaty speeches and continual self-medication (booze and tobacco) make her instantly disagreeable to the audience. When you see the lavishness of her birthday party, you wonder when Cornelia and her upper-class clique amassed their money and status: before or after Ceausescu? When you watch her order a housemaid to spy on her thirtysomething son Barbu, offering the bribe of a pair of used shoes (200 euros, and worn only once), you can understand why Barbu refused to attend her birthday party, and what he might have meant when he said that her entire generation ought to disappear.
Then Cornelia gets word that Barbu has been arrested in the impoverished outskirts of Bucharest, having run over a boy who was dashing across the highway. Driving out to the police station in the middle of the night, she calls in the help of the proper fixers, faces down one of the dead boy’s enraged relatives, tells the unhappy cops how they’re going to do their job and sets about altering Barbu’s written statement, all in one extraordinary prolonged scene. And now that you’ve finally met Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), a shambling, overgrown boy who musters his energy only when he attacks his mother, you start to feel slightly less hostile toward Cornelia.
Netzer directs this episode, and the increasingly wrenching events that follow, in a more fluid style than other New Wave directors would use. He even cuts within scenes, which does nothing to dilute the power of Child’s Pose or diminish the stunning effectiveness of the actors (who behave with so little self-regard that Bresson might have forgiven them for being professionals). There is none of the gallows humor that attracts a certain type of viewer to the Romanian New Wave. But the empathy is there, for Cornelia and for Barbu as well, in a film that gets all the way down to the rotten bones.