Nov. 21--BEIRUT -- A group of well-heeled Romanians have assembled to watch a pair of vocalists rehearse an opera duet. Leading the young performers through the libretto is the company diva, who is evidently doubling as director.
The older woman clutches onto each of her young colleagues as they sing -- walking them through the basic choreography of a defiant-looking young man being visibly depleted by a woman's insistent arias.
While whispering instructions and arranging postures, the diva sometimes warbles along with the duet in accompaniment, as though her direction were a pretext to relive her own past roles.
Like the play within the play of "Hamlet," the self-conscious artifice of this sequence illustrates the premise of a broader story -- that of Calin Peter Netzer's "Child's Pose," which opened Beirut's European Film Festival Wednesday evening.
Netzer's feature is set among the generation of party hacks-cum-nouveau riche that has delivered Romania from the dystopia of incompetent communism to the dystopia of robber baron capitalism. As the operatic interlude suggests, however, the film's narrative core is universal still: that of a strong woman's relentless love for her son and herself.
The rehearsal also sets the scene for the crisis propelling the plot forward. The 60-something Cornelia is plucked from the audience and informed that her son Barbu is in police custody, having killed a 14-year-old boy in a car accident.
The focal point of the film from its opening frames, Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu) has already revealed herself to be the protagonist of her own operatic struggle.
Her only son, the 30-something Barbu is estranged from her -- Cornelia reports his having said that she and her generation should just disappear. The villain, as far as she's concerned, is obviously Barbu's live-in girlfriend Carmen, who has a daughter from a previous entanglement.
Despite Barbu's best efforts to create some distance between them, their shared cleaning lady informs her about everything from Carmen's housekeeping to Barbu's reading habits.
Cornelia absorbs news of her son's accident with an air of calm calculation. As she and her pal Olga are driven to the police station, they are on the phone with police contacts, getting pointers on what's going on and how best to fix things.
Arriving at the scene, Cornelia transforms the tragedy into grim farce, bullying her way into Barbu's interrogation and disrupting it with her mobile phone conversation with some high-ranking police official. She demands to see her son's written deposition, then, as the police look on, instructs him to change the facts of his testimony.
"It says here the speed limit is 110," km per hour, she points to the paper. "Write that you were going 110."
An emotional wreck, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) allows himself to fall back into mom's manipulative arms while she stage-manages a scheme to massage the criminality out of what he's done -- testing the pliability of the crime's sole third-party witness, arranging to cover the expenses of the victim's funeral, etc.
At first Cornelia's infantilizing manner makes Barbu seem a sympathetic figure -- the probing back massage she administers to her son is at once clinical (she dons a latex glove first) and uncomfortably sensual. When he begins to emerge, fitfully, from his stupor of grief, he demonstrates how distasteful the rotten fruit of entitlement is.
Having moved back in with mom as he awaits his trial date, Barbu tells Cornelia to bring him nose drops from the pharmacy, giving her the painstaking instructions of a demanding child too ineffectual to get out of his own way. When mom presents him with the wrong nose drops -- she's opted for the most-expensive product -- he falls into a litany of ungrateful insults.
"Child's Pose" won the Golden Bear for best film at the Berlinale earlier this year and the prize was well deserved. A collaboration between Netzer and noted screenwriter Razvan Radulescu, the story is masterfully simple.
Though the largely hand-held (as opposed to steady cam) cinematography will be irritating to some, the monochrome palette used by cinematographer Andrei Butica provides a perfect complement to the actor's grimily believable portrayals.
Uncluttered by overelaborate plot complication, the writing does leave plenty of room for Netzer and his cast to develop their characters.
Though the script keeps Barbu hidden for much of the film, when Bogdan Dumitrache is called upon to render the multifaceted face of the character's emasculation -- accentuated by the mixture of grief, cowardice and self-pity that appears to overwhelm him after the accident -- he does so with spitting vehemence.
The star of the show, of course, is Luminita Gheorghiu. She inhabits the Machiavellian person of Cornelia with effortless grace. When, in the film's final act, she leads the charge through a minuteslong, single-shot monologue, the ageing gorgon's fear and grief seem utterly believable.
It is one of the great strengths of this film that, convincing as Gheorghiu's performance is, it in no way undoes the manipulative cynicism underlying it. Nor is it entirely certain that Cornelia herself believes her performance.
"Child's Pose" will screen again Thursday at 10 p.m. at the Metropolis Cinema-Sofil. The European Film Festival will continue until Dec. 2.
(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
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