In the movie world, most national new waves don’t last long. An exception is the Romanian renaissance, which has featured first-class movies now for more than a decade. The latest is “Child’s Pose,” a lousy title for a marvelous movie.
Bleached-blonde Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu), a sometime architect and set designer, leads a privileged life in Bucharest with her milquetoast physician husband and their circle of moneyed, upper-crust friends. She can joke that she is “30, looking 60,” but the truth is that age and bitterness have hardened her features.
The chief cause of her bitterness is her son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), an only child, who has closed her out of his life as best he can. This is no easy task for him, since Cornelia is almost pathologically overprotective. Those instincts come into play in a flash when Barbu is involved in a car accident, killing a 14-year-old boy, and soon finds himself facing a major jail sentence.
Swooping into the police station where he is being detained, Cornelia goes into action, drawing on all her powerful contacts and pulling out all the stops. Disaster allows the mother the opportunity to reconnect with her son. And even then, the connection is fraught – Barbu, a surly ne’er do well, is, to put it mildly, less than welcoming of his mother’s ministrations. His girlfriend, Carmen (Ilinca Goia), is even less well matched against Cornelia. We can see in this woman’s drawn face how the ravages of her relationship with Barbu, and by extension his mother, long predate the accident.
Because the 14-year-old boy came from a family of modest means, the story inevitably turns into a microcosm of the class system in post-cold-war Romania. Director Calin Peter Netzer, who wrote the script with Razvan Radulescu, doesn’t force anything here. The socially conscious meanings arise naturally from the material. Besides, Cornelia is too ferociously singular a creation to stand in for anybody or anything.
This is due in no small part to Gheorghiu’s performance. (Vlad Ivanov, who plays a smarmy eyewitness seeking hush money from Cornelia, is equally world-class.) It is frequently forgotten that moviemaking’s new waves are often as much the product of great actors as of great directors. Gheorghiu has appeared to stunning effect in two of the finest Romanian films that I’ve seen: Cristian Mungiu’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” and Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” which Radulescu co-wrote. Whether she’s playing upper crust or lower echelon, Gheorghiu’s acting is bone-deep authentic. Her moment-to-moment intensity is the dynamism that keeps “Child’s Pose” in a state of constant agitation. My only large criticism of the film is that Netzer didn’t recognize that, with an actress of such power, he didn’t need to constantly swivel and jerk his camera in order to impart a sense of immediacy to the proceedings. This tactic distracts from the story and the performances. Why do directors persist in thinking that bobble-headed camerawork is somehow more “realistic” than the old-fashioned ways? (The “Bourne” movies and “Captain Phillips” are the most notorious recent offenders.)
In every other respect, Netzer’s work is exemplary. He can show us Cornelia in her fur coat as she barges into the police station, choosing not to recognize the weepy boy’s family in the waiting area, and we know all we need to know about her – or at least we think we do. For Cornelia is no nouveau riche caricature. She is, above all, a woman possessed. It’s just that the object of her possessiveness, her son, rejects her.
As the film progresses, it deepens, because we can see that Cornelia has nothing to cling to but a love for a son she is finally forced to recognize is unworthy. There is an extraordinary scene near the end in which they face off; he makes it clear he wants no part of her and she says aloud, with grim matter-of-factness, that he doesn’t love her.
An even more extraordinary scene comes later, when Cornelia visits the dead boy’s parents, and her fabricated grief turns into real grief. She pleads for the parents to forgive her son and cries out at how “affectionate and delicate he is,” how proud she is of him.
At first she seems to be attempting to win sympathy by concocting a loving portrait, but it goes much deeper than that. In this moment she is carried away by her idealization of the son she wishes she had. When she tells the parents that “he is the apple of my eye,” she is transfixed by what might have been. She is so enraptured that she does not even realize her insensitivity in telling the parents that, while they still have another son, Barbu is her only child.
“Child’s Pose” won the top prize at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival but inexplicably failed to cop one of the five Oscar nominations for best foreign-language film. If there are five foreign-language films in that crop better than this one, I’ll be mighty surprised. Grade: A (This film is not rated.)