"Child's Pose" sounds like something simple and easy, but don't be fooled. This stunning film from Romania, exceptionally written, directed and acted and winner of the Berlin Film Festival's prestigious Golden Bear, is anything but uncomplicated.
A ferocious psychological drama with the pace of a thriller, "Child's Pose" combines, as have the best of the Romanian new-wave films, a compelling personal story about mothers and sons with an examination of socio-political dynamics in a way that is both intense and piercingly real.
Confidently directed by Calin Peter Netzer from a delicate yet potent script he co-wrote with Razvan Radulescu, "Child's Pose" benefits from a spectacular performance by Luminita Gheorghiu, even more impressive than she was in her award-winning work in "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," one of the first Romanian films to break through in the United States.
Though the film's specific setting is a Romania rife with influence peddling, where who you know and how willing you are to throw your weight around is paramount, the personal concerns of "Child's Poses" are completely universal. As Netzer and his team demonstrate, the dynamic between parent and child that the film explores can be among the most difficult of human relationships, with the power to wreak as much havoc as an exploding hand grenade.
Gheorghiu plays Cornelia, a svelte and successful architect introduced with a cigarette poised in her hand, complaining bitterly to her sister, Olga (Natasa Raab), about how badly she has been mistreated by her son, Barbu — "I'm ashamed to tell you what he said," Cornelia tells Olga.
Barbu never wants to see her again and has been abusive, his mother says, and the examples she cites sound convincing. His girlfriend, Carmen, is slovenly and a bad influence, she adds, and Barbu refuses to come to her 60th birthday party, which, we soon see, is a testament to how well connected she is.
It's at this point that fate takes a hand in this fraught relationship. Driving too fast on a hinterlands highway, Barbu attempts to pass another car and ends up striking and killing a 14-year-old boy. Cornelia's immediate reaction is telling: Unconcerned about the dead boy, she's in ecstasy that the unreachable Barbu left her a phone message after the crash.
Arriving at the local police station with her sister, Cornelia wastes no time attempting to influence the ongoing investigation and letting the local constabulary know how many of their bosses she knows, so much so that the boy's irate uncle screams out in rage, "Get Obama's father here too."
Seeing strong-willed, relentless and obsessive Cornelia in action — her family nickname, we later discover, is "Controlia" — is a revelation. We can see, without a word being said, exactly why Barbu has done his best to flee from her steamroller presence. Potentially sympathetic in the opening scene, Cornelia looks completely different now.
Because Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) is in shock over what happened, Cornelia seizes the chance to gain a toehold in his life. A force you ignore at your peril, obsessive Cornelia wants to be everywhere, do everything, leave no action undone in her quest to see that her son is never even prosecuted, even though there's not an ounce of doubt he's guilty of reckless driving.
As overbearing a presence as Cornelia is, "Child's Pose" is too sophisticated a film to make her the absolute villain and her son the blameless victim. While many of Barbu's problems may finally stem from having this woman as a parent, he has ended up whiny and entitled, an overgrown child whose idea of taking responsibility for his life goes no further than savagely berating his mother.
With all this as backdrop, "Child's Pose" artfully intertwines its parallel stories. We watch in fascination and/or horror as Cornelia and company attempt to work their wiles on Romania's fragile justice system. But the bigger battle, the one where no one compromises an inch, is the power struggle between mother and son. The question here is not so much who wins as who, if anyone, will realize that the fight itself is making each of them less humane, less human.
While Cornelia in broad outline can sound like a "no wire hangers" Mommie Dearest cliché, it is the triumph of Gheorghiu's resonant performance that the actress lets us in on the genuine pain, anxiety and even despair that underlie her tactless, meddling behavior.
No one does this kind of work alone, and Gheorghiu has some splendid co-stars, starting with Dumitrache as her born-under-a-bad-sign son and two other players who each get a splendid scene alone with the star.
Ilinca Goia (whose credits include theater in San Diego in the 1990s) brings unexpected nuance to Carmen, Barbu's girlfriend. And Vlad Ivanov, savagely unforgettable as the abortionist in Cristian Mungiu's landmark "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," is just as good as the opportunistic driver of the other car.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about "Child's Pose" is that, aided by Andrei Butica's jittery hand-held wide-screen cinematography, it feels terrifyingly authentic at all times. Intensely emotional without being the slightest bit overdone, it pulls us so deeply into this disturbing story we feel it could be happening to people we know or, even worse, to ourselves.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes
Playing: At Nuart, West Los Angeles