The films of Romanian New Wave cinema tend to be defined by unnervingly naturalistic performances, slice-of-life realism and a gradual sense of dramatic escalation.
Director Calin Peter Netzer’s chilly family drama Child’s Pose is centred around a manipulative mother’s efforts to keep her son who has been charged with manslaughter out of prison. Netzer uses the slow machinations synonymous with the Romanian New Wave as a means to burrow, with a near insidious sense of patience, into a disquieting story about upper-class people attempting to absolve themselves of responsibility.
Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghui) fights for her son Barbu’s (Bogdan Dumitrache) freedom despite a plethora of evidence to suggest he should be punished for both his crime and his lack of repentance.
The legal case against Barbu concerns the speed he was driving down a freeway, attempting to overtake another vehicle, when he ran over and killed a 14-year-old boy. The emotional case revolves around his reactions to the event, particularly the pitiable manner with which he follows his mother’s lead and the disdainful attitudes he exhibits towards the few people who care for him.
Questions concerning who is right or wrong, moral or immoral, are rendered mostly irrelevant by the tight focus of Netzer (who co-wrote the screenplay with Razvan Radulescu) on a dysfunctional family who see themselves as entities existing outside the law.
Save for the wretched family of the victim, whose watery eyes suggest the closest thing the film has to a soul, Child’s Pose takes place in a bleak universe where virtually everybody is a sinner and success or failure is determined by the extent to which they get away with wrongdoings.
When Cornelia sits down with an eyewitness to barter over the amount of money she’ll pay him to change his testimony, it’s framed like a business deal. And of course, it is: the context it takes place in is a closed society where everyone is guilty. Netzer makes audiences feel the pinch of it.
As is common in Romanian cinema, “plot” is a word nobody seems to care about and onus is on authenticity above all else. Lengthy time-outs are called in between long but taut scenes. Pauses in tension add to the film’s realism, giving the actors space to breathe and resonate, but alleviates its overall impact.
A deeply compelling performance from Luminita Gheorghui is Child Pose’s prize asset. If Cornelia seems purely sinister at first blush, she evolves into a fully nuanced piece of work: brave, needy, determined and quietly vulnerable.
When Cornelia begs for her son to be shown forgiveness, pretending to be compassionate and heartfelt, Gheorghui’s performance takes flight, real and fake emotions blended so masterfully not even she seems capable of knowing the difference.