In Child’s Pose, director Călin Peter Netzer’s latest film, both the 2013 winner of the Golden Bear prize at the Berlin Film Festival and the official Romanian entry for Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Academy Awards, money talks. That’s especially true if you’re a member of the Eastern European nouveau riche and your bribes come with a persuasive tongue. But if it’s a mother’s obsessive love for her son at the heart of her argument, no matter what the cost of covering up his wrongdoing, she may as well cut out her own tongue. Because all the money in the world can’t buy the kind of love she wants.

It’s a nasty business, trying to keep her spoiled, 30-something son out of jail, especially after his reckless speeding has caused the death of a young boy. Thanks to a remarkably brilliant and contained performance by film actress Luminita Gheorghiu, we know we are in for a riveting ride all the way from corruption to a questionable redemption at the end of the road.

Screenwriter Răzvan Rădulescu has written a tightly-coiled script that puts Gheorghiu as Cornelia, the mother, front and center throughout the action’s entirety. There’s a slow build at the beginning, as we see her interacting with and manipulating key and peripheral players alike. A particularly effective set piece, for example, shows us how she offers coffee to her housekeeper (the same domestic she employs for her son Barbu’s abode) in order to elicit information about her child’s personal life. She is both solicitous and dismissive, simultaneously smoking and contemplating her every move. She may be an architect by profession, but her designs go far beyond mortar and brick concerns — from the reading material on her son’s shelves to the keys to his apartment, she’s a master at keeping tabs on his comings and goings.

Her birthday party is also a well-orchestrated interlude — her white lies smoothly cover her son’s absence and indifference to this well-heeled Bucharest society. One of the only attempts at lightheartedness in the script shows this diminutive but steely woman dancing with a guest in full view of the seated party, lost in her own dramatic gestures. Her surgeon husband remains on the peripheries of this little charade. It is, after all, her party. On the fateful evening of her son’s accident, she attends a local opera performance. This is a drawn out episode, one of the only moments that feels irrelevant to the story, but is cut short by her sister’s arrival — the carrier of the bad news that will propel our plot to its heartrending finish.

From this point forward, we are caught up in Cornelia’s mission to shield her son Barbu. Arriving at the police precinct, she must quickly assess her options. A quick glance at the victim’s family in the waiting room is hardly enough to deter her from more important matters. How fast was her son speeding? Never mind that the victim was thrown 26-meters in the air upon impact. Maybe an autopsy will alter the circumstances. Even her husband scoffs at her ludicrous attempts. But she is relentless. Facts, after all, are open to interpretation, aren’t they?

Of course, Cornelia’s methods are hardly unfamiliar to the interrogators. In a corrupt system, innocence is a rare commodity. If she’s an architect, maybe her expertise could come in handy to the police. In another encounter, a cynical witness to the accident — a finely calibrated performance by Vlad Ivanov — agrees to meet with her. Perhaps, he too, can be bought if the price is right.

As the film’s progression plods toward its conclusion, still we wait on the edge of our seats, pawns in Cornelia’s hands. Who will she manipulate next? It’s an excruciating exercise for any viewer with a short attention span. True, a hyperrealism approach often requires a pacing that doesn’t adhere to audience expectations, but a little dramatic license with the overall tempo never hurts.

Advertised in the press release as a “family thriller,” if you are looking for a jump start to the next plot jolt, you will not find it here. The film works precisely because of (in the words of the producers Netzer and Ada Solomon) the “microsurgical precision” of the screenwriter’s style. This is cinéma vérité carried to another level. And it is not hyperbole to say that what Gheorghiu, the most renowned actress of the Romanian New Wave, manages to accomplish can hardly be defined as performance in the fictional scene. We have witnessed a real woman’s plight, a truly human predicament. Whether we like or detest her methods is not the issue. This is life as it is lived, painful but finally rewarding to watch.

Capturing the right mood of a film is a group enterprise. The emotional intensity the filmmaker obviously wants us to feel, if not in the pacing, is achieved in Andrei Butica’s brooding cinematography. From the gritty night footage as Cornelia drives to the scene of the accident — the expressway a perfect backdrop for setting the tension ahead — to the hard lighting of the police precinct, we are there. Where Netzer’s directorial skills shine is most obvious in how he handles his ensemble of actors.

Ilinca Goia as Barbu’s wife gives a quietly reserved performance while Bogdan Dumitrache as Barbu presents an angry, self-involved, often maddeningly unresponsive character. He is not portrayed as particularly likable; still, we believe he has endured a history of being the golden child at the cost of any real independence he may have coveted. Natasa Raab as Cornelia’s sister and confidante is the perfect counterpoint — warm, yet pragmatic. “Maybe you should have had two, then you could choose,” she advises her sibling about motherhood. But it is Gheorghiu’s portrayal that will not easily be forgotten. It is precisely because she gives us a woman who operates with her head instead of her heart that her eventual unraveling when she faces the victim’s family leaves us shaken. We have been witnesses to the unbearable cost of love gone wrong.

Gheorghiu’s career has spanned more than three decades, including The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Beyond the Hills (2012), among others. She is a powerhouse of an actress and deserves to be placed in the pantheon we reserve for the few film actresses — such as Simone Signoret, Giulietta Masina and Lila Kedrova — who we remember because they made us believe as their stories unfolded that there was no pretense left, only truth. We have our own American favorites, chief among them the ever surprising and luminous Meryl Streep, but perhaps this film will bring a greater appreciation of Gheorghiu’s body of work and Netzer’s to our own country.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

(Child’s Pose, a Zeitgeist Films release, is currently playing in select theatres in New York City and Los Angeles, before screening nationwide. For a full list of theatres and playdates, please visit

Video Courtesy of Zeitgeist Films.

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Featured image: Luminiţa Gheorghiu in “Child’s Pose,” a film by Călin Peter Netzer. Photo Courtesy of: Zeitgeist Films.