The stranglehold of bureaucracy is a big issue in Romania. If the president, Traian Basescu, has said the country’s ‘huge bureaucracy’ has prevented it from using EU funds, things really must be bad. In Child’s Pose, a mother is determined to extricate her son from the legal fallout of a fatal car crash, before he gets lost in this labyrinthine system.
The car crash was largely the fault of the son, so the mother, Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu), should really accept that he must face the full penalty of the law. But a mother’s love is a mighty strong thing, and this one seems unusually dedicated to her son, who is thankless and feckless in equal measure. For her, the police are merely obstacles in her path.
The last Romanian film we reviewed, Police, Adjective, centred on a policeman who sees his profession as a rather absurd lot – and with some justification. In this film, the problem is the protagonist’s skewed view of the authorities, who are doing their jobs and trying to administer justice. But really bureaucracy, or the machinery of state, isn’t the main focus of Child’s Pose. Here, rather than the bemused estrangement conveyed through long shots in Police, Adjective, the prevailing mode is high emotion and wobbly hand-held camera work.
Cornelia comes from the fur coat-wearing, skinny cigarette-smoking class of the new wealthy in the capital city, Bucharest. The family of the dead teenager are dirt poor country-dwellers. It is clear that these class divisions are key for director, Calin Peter Netzer’s understanding of Romanian society. Her son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) is a feckless youth who completely refuses to accept responsibility for his actions.
The trouble with Barbu is that his mother has not allowed him independence. He’s 34 and still she won’t let him go his own way. Hoping she’ll go away and leave him to get on with messing up his life he tells her, “People your age visit the pyramids.” Desperate to either establish a healthy maternal relationship or assert control, she responds, “People my age have positive relationships with their children.”
Luminita Gheorghiu puts in a bravura performance as Cornelia. Pushy and manipulative, it’s easy to agree with her daughter-in-law when she says “you’re not the nicest person in the world.” But her vulnerability and isolation make it hard to entirely dislike her, and she remains a fascinating character until the end.
The film comes to a head when Cornelia takes her son to the dead boy’s funeral, hoping this will lessen the likelihood of the legal action. Faced with the parent’s genuine loss and grief, she runs through a gamut of emotion, from desperate pleading for forgiveness to realisation of the true horror of the event. All the time we’re unsure if any of this is real or purely for her son’s benefit.
Perhaps an obsessive maternal desire to order the life of one’s offspring is a metaphor for the sort of authoritarian control that Romanians have until recently been all too familiar with, or maybe it is just a story about two of the lost and lonely. Either way, Child’s Pose is an intelligent look at a mother-son relationship gone awry. And, in case you were wondering whether the film had anything to do with Balasana, the yoga position known as child’s pose, it doesn’t.
Child’s Pose won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and is out on DVD on Friday 16th December, 2013.