From Hitchcock's "Psycho" to Siegel and McGehee's "The Deep End," cinema loves its messed up mother-son relationships. But rarely are they handled with the mastery of Calin Peter Netzer's tale of smotherly love "Child's Pose," Romania's 2014 Oscar entry and also one of the country's strongest films in a surprising, prosperous New Wave of films by Cristian Mungiu and Cristi Puiu. Add Netzer to that list.
Luminita Gheorghiu plays Cornelia, a wealthy, weathered, swilling matriarch who manipulates her entire family. Especially her son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) who, after a hit-and-run, is about to undergo criminal prosecution for the manslaughter of a child. All wringing hands and cold calculation, Gheorghiu's is the sort of iconic performance that would get more plaudits if this weren't such a crowded year of other iconic performances. She has worked with Puiu and Mungiu before, as well as Michael Haneke, and once again slips into the world of the icy auteur like a pro.
The film is as much indebted to its handheld camera-wielding contemporaries as it is to classic neo-realism. But with more bite. Netzer comfortably enters genre territory, as the film unspools into a full-on thriller in its second half after laying the groundwork for richly textured, plausible characters whose strifes you believe and, more importantly, care about. Which is why the film works as high art drama and unnerving white knuckler all at once.
Winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin earlier this year, it's a brilliantly written, guileless exploration of a mother's grotesque affection for her son. While the film deals in unmentionables, it articulates them with a brutal, arresting urgency. Why is the maternal bond so cinematic? The answer is unclear, but the subject finds its chilling apogee with "Child's Pose."
Will the film make the final five in the Oscars come January? Romania has been submitting films since 1966 and has yet to be nominated, though Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills" made the shortlist last year. It's about time the Academy tunes into this spate of amazing films coming out of Romania.
"Child's Pose" hits theaters February 19, 2014, via Zeitgeist Films.