Winner of the Golden Bear, the top prize, at last year’s Berlin Film Festival, the Romanian drama Child’s Pose shows another side of the great actress Luminita Gheorghiu, most familiar to international audiences as the fearsome, mordantly funny nurse Mioara Avram in The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu. Mioara is the one and only advocate for a sick man who’s being jettisoned from hospital to hospital in Bucharest, largely encountering apathy and bureaucracy. Steadfastness is one of the traits Mioara shares with Cornelia, the mother Gheorghiu plays with equal brilliance in Child’s Pose. But Cornelia is advocating for injustice, from a position of great power and bourgeois entitlement. And yet it’s a testament to Gheorghiu—and Răzvan Rădulescu’s fine script—that it isn’t so easy to dismiss a woman whom viewers might be inclined to label an unctuous harridan.
It certainly doesn’t seem difficult at first, though. When Cornelia gets word that her only son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), has struck and killed a young boy while trying to speed past another car on the freeway, she and her friend Olga (Natasa Raab), cloaked ostentatiously in fur coats, hop into Cornelia’s BMW to tend to the matter. As police are busy wedging a statement out of Barbu, she tramps into the station and immediately starts finessing information like the speed at which he was traveling. She later works behind the scenes to influence the medical examiner testing for blood-alcohol levels, the driver (Vlad Ivanov) Barbu passed before the accident, and even the victim’s mother and father, in case they can be talked out of pressing charges. Meanwhile, Cornelia’s intense involvement in the case deepens the tension between herself and the sullen, ineffectual Barbu, who’d been trying to distance himself from his domineering mother for some time.
Director Călin Peter Netzer shoots Child’s Pose with a jittery handheld camera that’s more about keeping the style simple and intimate than reaching for expressive effect. It can be distracting at times, but he’s wise to give the film over to Rădulescu’s textured script, which isn’t entirely the assault on privilege it appears to be, and Gheorghiu’s character, who isn’t entirely as monstrous as she appears. Or maybe she is an entitled monster, but one with relatable motivations: an instinct to protect her son at all costs, and keep alive a relationship with him that’s plainly the most important thing in her life, her marriage notwithstanding. The way Barbu receives her so coldly makes her all the more sympathetic in her determination to defend him and bring him back under her wing. Her devotion is twisted, but it’s real.
The accident divides Child’s Pose down sharp class lines, with the bereaved parents, relatives, and locals wanting justice for the dead boy—at the end of a baseball bat, if necessary—and Cornelia imperiously swooping in to muck up the investigation. Netzer and Rădulescu never let the audience forget how money and influence can contaminate the process, but the true dramatic purpose of the accident is to open up the fault lines that already exist in Cornelia’s relationships with her son, her daughter-in-law, and her husband. A great scene in which Barbu’s wife reveals his sexual peccadilloes would not have been possible without the accident triggering it, and even Cornelia’s eventual talk with the boy’s parents is as much about contending with long-gestating problems as it is about current ones. And through it all, Gheorghiu finds the perfect pitch between a mother’s love for her child and a kind of pathology.