The outlines of the modern Romanian drama are by now familiar: casual realism involving strained escalations of everyday occurrences; measured, unobtrusive camerawork of the fixed fly-on-the-wall or hovering faux-documentary variety; the use of flashpoint scenarios to dredge up old wounds and buried conflicts. A collective move toward modern domestic and economic concerns, rather than cathartic excavations of Ceaucescu-era trauma, may have been signaled by films like Radu Muntean’s chilly Tuesday, After Christmas, but the form and focus of this current new wave (at least in the films that have made it to American and festival screens) have remained fundamentally fixed. This style reaches a sort of apotheosis with Călin Peter Netzer’s interesting but unambitious third feature, Child’s Pose, a parable of devoted motherhood that doubles as a plea for cross-class compassion.
Written by Răzvan Rădulescu, also responsible for the aforementioned Muntean movie and Cristi Puiu’s masterful The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, the film plants itself among the upper crust of contemporary Bucharest, as a lavish birthday party for Cornelia Keneres (Luminița Gheorghiu) alerts us that our subjects are politically connected and at least a little bit wasteful. That frivolity seems poised to come under scrutiny when Cornelia’s son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), likely drunk and certainly speeding, fatally strikes a peasant child near a highway on-ramp. The setup, rich and poor intersecting on a raw nexus of vehicular violence, appears to promise something in the vein of Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, with the careless act as symbolic summation for an ingrained tradition of fiscal neglect. But with less focus on the particulars of the case than Cornelia’s efforts to save her son from a long prison term, Child’s Pose ends up somewhere closer to Joon-ho Bong’s Mother, mapping out the desperate extremes of the maternal instinct.
Cornelia’s task is doubly difficult, because Barbu is both spoiled and antagonistically ungrateful. As his mother lobbies officials, offers bribes, and harasses him to at least pretend at respectability, the disheveled son demands that she leave him alone, an attitude that either hints at a long history of overbearing motherhood, his self destructive need to pay for his crime, or some combination of both. Barbu’s motives are never entirely clear, and Child’s Pose thrives off that ambiguity, keeping all things blurry outside Cornelia’s focused perspective, its myopia sustained by Gheorghiu’s tough, quietly intense performance. The character suffers and strives, and while her actions are thankless, amoral and generally destructive, the film is more interested in locating the source of her actions than passing judgment.
This all culminates in a meeting between Cornelia and the parents of her son’s victim, which verges on parodic absurdity, the rich woman prattling on about her efforts to engage her son in winter sports to a family packed into a one-room hovel. Yet while this conclusion is more than a bit facile, the film chooses to at least respect her effort—the mere attempt at humbling connection is important—and makes way for a further act of concession that feels like a definite moral victory. The final meeting is offset by another which happens earlier, a typically analytical bit of business in which Cornelia attempts to bribe the accident’s sole witness into adjusting his testimony. This involves a large sum of money, but also forces her to endure the puffed-up prattle of the observer, an e-cigar-puffing motorist who seems more upset with Barbu’s having passed him on the road than the child’s death (“My ML has more engine power, but considering its bigger wheelbase…”). These two encounters, both ridiculous in different ways, acutely painful in others, sum up both the film’s blocky rhythms and the outlines of this one woman’s quest, a search that takes her beyond the screens of money and machismo, toward the ineffable mystery of unconditional love.