In the history of monstrous screen mothers, three titles spring immediately to mind: Mildred Pierce (noir melodrama), Mommie Dearest (high camp) and The Sopranos (crime drama laced with Greek tragedy).
To that honour roll, we can now add Cornelia, the 60-year-old protagonist of Child’s Pose. Despite its melodramatic subject matter, this Romanian winner of the Golden Bear at last year’s Berlin Film Festival plays out as an unmistakably realist drama – less over the top than the titles listed above, more acutely observed from a psychological viewpoint, and all the more convincing for it.
"She took it like a monster"
At its epicentre is Cornelia, masterfully played by industry veteran Luminita Gheorghiu, a 60-year-old mother from a middle class background who stops at nothing to prevent her grown son, Babu, from going to jail after he accidentally kills a boy from an impoverished family in a road accident.
While the plot pivots around the likely success or failure of her mission, which includes string-pulling and outright bribery, the film’s deeper question concerns her motivation: to dominate her son’s life, or to save him out of pure maternal love? These two positions – opposites in a more conventionally Manichean drama – are shown to be mutually entwined. She loves him so much she can’t let him live an independent life.
Speaking from his home in Bucharest, Netzer is quick to acknowledge the melodramatic nature of the subject matter, explaining how he set out a strategy to counter the emotional heat that can so easily tip this kind of story towards fever pitch. “I wanted this to be very observational, as cold as I could do, because I didn’t want to get involved in the emotional story.”
For all that the lengthy final scene is – without giving too much away – a showstopper, dramatically powerful to the point it drew audible gasps at key points from the preview audience I saw it with. For Netzer, this was the point where we switch our point of view of the character and try to understand her, though I sensed that by this stage we may have come to understand her only too well.
Famously Livia Soprano, the vulture hovering over her gangster son Tony Soprano in the early episodes of that US TV drama, was inspired by series creator David Chase’s own mother. Cornelia likewise was inspired by the domineering mothers of the director and his co-screenwriter Razvan Radulescu, a novelist turned film writer whose extensive credits include The Death of Mr Lazarescu, one of the most influential films of the last decade’s Romanian new wave.
So has Netzer’s mother seen the film, and is she still speaking to him? Not only, he reveals, did she see it, she read the script beforehand, and when the film was released, gathered press clippings. “After the film came out she was very happy about the success of the film. The press reaction was all about ‘the monster’. She took it like a monster; she was sending me the articles. She tried to defend herself.”
Apart from its forensic examination of a mother-son relationship, Child’s Pose serves as social critique, something it shares with much of the rest of the nation’s contemporary cinema. In the national conversation following the wake of the collapse of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the nation’s finest filmmakers won acclaim on the international film festival circuit for their portrayals of life both under the oppressive former regime (see Cannes Palme d’Or winning abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and since. Under the microscope in Child’s Pose is the influence of class and the role of bribery.
The filmmaker spent much of his youth in Germany; in 1981 his father initially fled there alone as a refugee from Ceausescu, joined two years later by Netzer and his mother. Having picked up the habit of watching films daily, Netzer returned to his home country in 1994, around five years after the collapse of the Communist system, to study at film school. As a result, he views Romanian society with something of a fresh eye. “I didn’t watch the Revolution in 1989, and that is a gap,” he says. But far from this being a problem, “I’m a little bit of an outsider – and that’s good.”
Child’s Pose was a hit at home – well, relative for that country’s cinema, anyway. It’s still screening at one cinema after a year, Netzer says – or at least, he thinks it is. Given the tenor of Romanian cinema as overwhelmingly serious and often austere, lauded by critics and cinephiles for its honesty and power as social critique, I wonder if its filmmakers have come under fire from broader home audiences for refusing to provide the mainstream comforts of entertainment. Even in Australia a slew of serious dramas earned the nation’s cinema an image as bleak and depressing – albeit often unfairly (and usually, it must be said, without the aesthetic rigour of the best Romanian cinema).
At home, says Nezter, Romanian films are seen as “realistic and depressing”. In general, things are not conducive for the cinema in his country. The public doesn’t often go to see movies, mainly due to a dearth of cinemas, though a multiplex building program is under way. But, he believes, it is also a question of education. Young audiences are going to see American blockbusters or watching films at home online.
“It’s quite difficult to make a commercial film in Romania. The only way to make a film that’s an art film is to make it for festivals and to sell to many countries.
The Romanian new wave filmmakers were from a generation that had grown up in the ruins of Ceausescu’s final days and the liberating aftermath. Suddenly they were free to engage in open conversation and reflection after years of state control and censorship. But who will follow them? Will Romanian films diversify and spread into popular genre material, or maintain their high aesthetic aims?
“There are some talented people, people coming after us,” Netzer says. “Some of my colleagues are going step by step to comedy and general [i.e. more mainstream] films.” Far from being critical, as some might have imagined, he welcomes this development. “That’s a starting point to educating people. You have to give them something.”
Child's Pose is in cinemas May 15. Watch the trailer here.