No Child Play

Berlinale 2013 – encore: Pozitia Copilului (Competition / Romania / Director: Calin Peter Netzer)

By Sascha Krieger

What would you do if your only son caused an accident in which a 14-year-old-boy died? For Cornelia, a successful Bucharest architect, the answer is clear: she’ll fight and she’s willing to do everything it takes to keep her son out of prison. At this year’s Berlin Film Festival, Child’s Pose was the consensus winner of the Golden Bear, the festival’s award for the best film. In it, director Calin Peter Netzer portrays an overbearing mother and a member of Romania’s upper classes, for whom she and her sense of family come first and then there is nothing for a very long time.At the same time, Child’s Pose provides a chilling glimpse into a society in which everything can be managed if you know the right people and have sufficient amounts of money. With its in-your-face documentary-like style dominated by the handheld camera which is always close but also still and distant enough to allow the viewer long looks into those faces, particularly that of Luminita Gheorghiu’s Cornelia. Everything that needs be known is in this face: the hardness, the lack of compassion of a society in which the stronger always wins, the longing for a closeness this world and the laws governing it no longer allow, the scars it leaves.

Cornelia is a control freak. In the beginning we see her interrogating her janitor Clara who also cleans her son’s apartment. Matter-of-factly but with an almost diabolical determination that borders on the obsessive. When, for minutes on end we see her ploughing through her son’s apartment, her loneliness, her isolation and her compensation through the stifling grip she keeps on her son become almost unbearable. This is also true later when she is left alone, motionless and helpless, in her spotless kitchen, a glass of Grand Marnier being her only companion. But then immediately she becomes the efficient, unscrupulous organizer who calmly persuades her son to change his testimony, coerces a witness into co-operating, uses her connections to smooth things regardless of the victims. When, at the very end, tears roll as she tries to convince the boy’s family to drop charges, the question how much of this is real and if it is, who is she crying for, has become unsolvable.

But Cornelia is no monster: the scariest part of the film is how perfectly she fits into this world, how acceptable all that she does is: to her husband, her friends, even the police. If her son rebels, it is against her overbearing nature, not her questionable tactics. This son, too, is a scarred individual, a selfish loner who needs to be if not at the center of attention than at least at the center of his world.  Bogdan Dumitrache plays this Barbu as a childish, weak, hostile, cowardly man who is way too similar to his mother for his own good, product and symbol of a society in which money can buy you anything. Child’s Pose shows how a corrupt world that has lost its balance and its center deform those who live in it, particularly, those who think they rule it, those who built t in the first place. But there is hope: in  the quiet dignity of the boy’s parents and maybe even in that quietly improvised gesture Barbu musters up in the end and which we watch from a distance, from inside a car. A small hint of an ultimate emancipation, a tiny act of growing up, almost imperceptible, but even more earth-shattering for it.

Child’s Pose is a relentlessly honest film that keeps us watching when we want to turn our eyes away, that provides an unfiltered, direct, in-your-face perspective on a world so shiny on the surface and so hollow beneath. And it is a chilling portrait of people struggling and failing to avoid loneliness, longing for each other, but drifting apart the more they’re clinging to the other. Calin Peter Netzer’s naturalistic style is far from heavy, it never imposes itself on the film, it forces us to keep looking, to stay close to this woman fighting like a lioness for her child while overstepping all lines of what we might call morality, asking us what we would do, where our limits are and how much we’d weigh morals when all we care about is at stake. This Cornelia is so far and so near at the same time. A chilling, moving film not at all easy to forget.

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