Late in Robert May’s documentary Kids for Cash, you see a broadcast video of former judge Mark A. Ciavarella as he emerges from the courthouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania, to face a scrum of reporters and camera operators after his February 2011 conviction on twelve of thirty-nine counts of racketeering, bribery and extortion. According to federal prosecutors, he had used his power as the juvenile court judge of neighboring Luzerne County to funnel thousands of children into for-profit prisons in exchange for kickbacks from the operators. As Ciavarella stands in grim silence beside his lawyer, who is making the obligatory futile effort to portray disgrace as exoneration, a slim blond woman named Sandy Fonzo, the mother of one of the wronged children, sweeps around the right flank of the press corps and comes bearing down on Ciavarella, cursing him for having destroyed her son’s life. Had you read about the case in the newspapers, you might have seen that incident frozen as a front-page photograph: the gray, bespectacled, plump-cheeked Ciavarella in the foreground, gazing down at the microphones he won’t use, with Fonzo raging behind his shoulder.

If Kids for Cash were a standard exposé, as it appears to be at first, you might spend an hour and a half with it and never get much deeper than that image of anguished wrath at the back of wrongful authority. But Kids for Cash does not let you off so easily, to turn the page and skim the next outrage. In effect, it takes you inside the front-page photo.

You meet Sandy Fonzo, listen to her stories, watch her home movies and go with her to visit the grave of her son, Ed Kenzakoski. Remarkably, you also visit with Mark Ciavarella in his house, see him with his family, and hear him account for his actions with a mixture of sorrow, bafflement and mounting distress. The picture grows more dense with the testimonies of four survivors of Ciavarella’s courtroom—young adults now, but barely teenagers when they were hauled into a perfunctory, lawyerless trial—who spent years in Pennsylvania juvenile prisons for offenses such as getting into a schoolyard fight, shouting curses at a bus stop and mocking a teacher on MySpace. As these details accumulate, May gradually makes the case that the front-page photo is incomplete. Although Ciavarella was guilty of financial improprieties—and admitted as much—he might have been telling the truth when he insisted that he had not railroaded kids for cash.

He just railroaded kids, and thought it was the right thing to do. According to some of May’s witnesses—the reporter for the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader who covered the story, and the former head of the Luzerne County public defender’s office—Ciavarella had come onto the bench vowing to maintain a zero-tolerance policy for youthful misbehavior and had kept his promise, starting well before the profit-making prisons were built. In the climate of fear that took hold after the Columbine massacre, and in a culture that promoted individual responsibility as the sole cure for all social ills, Ciavarella had won praise and popularity for jailing virtually every child brought before his bench. Never mind that children by nature cannot consistently live up to adult standards of responsibility, as Marsha Levick and Robert Schwartz of Philadelphia’s Juvenile Law Center argue. The public was clamoring for stringency, the schools were happy to dump their troublemakers, and officials across the country were sending more and more children to prison, as if life behind bars would make kids wiser, more amiable and better prepared to do the work of the world—a notion worthy of the man in Swift’s A Tale of a Tub who is shocked to discover that flogging does little to improve a woman’s appearance. Ciavarella himself held firmly to the punitive faith, believing he was helping the kids. This is a man who proudly recalls, when speaking to May’s camera, that his father once turned him away from the path of delinquency by knocking him unconscious.

Kids for Cash is the first film directed by May, who until now has done admirable work as a producer for the likes of Errol Morris and Steve James. Despite the clarity of exposition that he brings to the job, and his caginess in building up and then undermining the received image of Ciavarella, the result is not an especially artful documentary; but it may be something equally valuable. It’s an honest investigation—unprejudiced toward its subjects, thorough in its research, comprehensive in its intellectual framework—and it’s a tragedy.

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You come to a moment in Gloria, an unaffectedly sad and charming tale by the Chilean director Sebastián Lelio, when the title character asks for a public reading of the love letter her grown daughter recently received. The message arrived by e-mail, and so, after an initial demurral, the daughter gets out her smartphone. When she brings it close to read, her face literally lights up with the words.

Modest, natural and yet keyed up just a little beyond the everyday, this passing effect illuminates something lovely in the young woman but is even better for the reflected light it casts on Gloria, who glows with happiness for her daughter but has no desire to live through her. At 50, more or less, Gloria still wants a sex life of her own, preferably with somebody sympathetic who likes to go out on the town, and she will not let divorce, a few wrinkles or a blandly respectable job hold her back.

Played by Paulina García with the grace of a woman who makes light of her own wounds and is oblivious to her own courage, Gloria wraps herself most evenings in a layer or two of something tasteful but sparkly, transforms her lips into a masterpiece of hard-edged monochrome painting, and sallies unaccompanied into one or another of the discos for the post-40 set, which apparently are a common resource in Santiago. If no one asks her to dance, she will venture onto the floor by herself. With her squarishly handsome features, helmet of brown hair and enormous eyeglasses, she looks a bit like Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie, which I do not mean as an insult. There is more humor than desperation in Gloria’s outgoing manner, more prideful display than anxious disguise in the way she likes to play dress-up. When she takes up with a comfortably rumpled older man (Sergio Hernández) whom she’s met in a disco—someone who has so many newly discovered feelings that he stammers in getting them out—you want to believe that Gloria has at last met someone who is her equal in benevolence and candor. I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that if he were, there wouldn’t be much of a movie.

Lelio in fact has plenty to work with in Gloria, in theme as well as plot. He simply prefers for you to encounter the bigger matters in small, everyday moments, as Gloria herself does, hearing about present-day social discontent through the complaints of friends exchanged over a meal, for example, or feeling a momentary chill from the Pinochet era when her new lover explains fuzzily that he was never in the military, just the navy. You are in the world of the short story rather than the novel: a place where the telling details are as close to hand as a jar of cold cream or the world’s ugliest stray cat, and the wisdom that encourages Gloria to keep living comes to her lips readily, in the words of the pop songs she loves to sing along with.

A feel-good movie that you don’t have to feel bad for liking, Gloria suggests that those songs might address the biggest matter of all: what you should do when you’ve lost your youth, your illusions, your proximity to your children, some of your late hopes and even a cat you hadn’t wanted in the first place. The answer—you should dance—wouldn’t sound very persuasive stated baldly; but articulated in the flesh and blood of the radiantly middle-aged Paulina García, it becomes a truth beyond argument.

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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.