Written by Calin Peter Netzer and Raxvan Radulescu
Directed by Calin Peter Netzer
If we learned anything from Jacki Weaver’s character in Animal Kingdom, it’s that you should never underestimate a man’s mother. Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose continues the Romanian cinematic renaissance most often associated with Cristian Mungiu, another director whose films unflinchingly task modern Romania’s conservative dogma. Mungiu’s recent films, this year’s Beyond the Hills and 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, position female protagonists as national symbols of struggle, the consequence of either religious or political polemics. Netzer’s film is similarly critical of his country’s social hierarchies, though the lens through which he dissects is slightly more inverted: rather than looking at the oppressed population, his institutional critique comes via the disproportionately well-connected, wealthy bourgeoisie upper class. Featuring a powerfully nuanced performance by Luminita Gheorghiu as a palm-greasing matriarch, Child’s Pose is one of the standout films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
The opening scene tells you all you need to know about Cornelia (Gheorghiu). As her sister receives a phone call about an accident in which Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), Cornelia’s son, has killed a child, Cornelia pesters, talks over, and does everything within her power to stranglehold the situation. She can’t, which makes her uncomfortable. Her attempt to assert herself isn’t the sort of hysterical maternal panic most commonly ascribed to worrying mothers, but rather a fierce calm with a glimpse of fire in the eyes. It’s clear from the onset that this is not a woman you want to fuck with.
Cornelia’s family is wealthy, and while she makes vague proclamations about her experience as a designer, the degree to which she’s connected, with politicians, local law enforcement, famous artists, etc., clearly exceeds the reach associated with white-collar industry. She tries to come to the rescue of her son by inserting her alpha posturing in every facet of the police investigation. His vehicular homicide occurred in a rural, poor area outside Bucharest, the child victim coming from a modest working-class family. The socioeconomic chasm between Cornelia, in her fur and designer clothes, and the local police, offended by her arrogance, is pronounced. Her attempts at buying off the local officials and lone witness to the event are mostly successful. Barbu is uninterested in his family’s manipulation of the incident, asking his mother once and for all to stay out of his life. His love is the only thing she can’t buy and it clearly doesn’t sit well.
The film slowly builds toward a climactic scene in which Gheorghiu delivers perhaps the greatest performance of the year. As a last resort, or a final effort to tidy the situation, Cornelia visits the parents of the child her son killed. In the scenes building up to the event, her intentions are clear: pay respects and plea with the family for forgiveness in the hopes that her son’s prison sentence is spared. It’s a chillingly ambiguous ending, as it’s unclear whether Cornelia’s interaction with the victim’s parents is genuine or just another in a long line of quiet manipulations.
How you feel about what happens may be contingent upon a gendered understanding of the lengths a mother will go to protect her son. Netzer’s film is more layered than that, though. There are subtle revelations throughout about the disparity between what Cornelia’s position can procure and the desperation of those at her disposal. It also functions as an engrossing character study and thrilling family drama. Romania already announced Child’s Pose as its official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film at 2014’s Academy Awards, and it might have a shot at course-correcting the conspicuous snubs of Mungiu’s masterpieces.
– John Oursler
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 5th to 15th, 2013. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please visit the official site.