Calin Peter Netzer on maternal inspiration in foreign Oscar hopeful 'Child's Pose'
The third feature from by largely unheralded Calin Peter Netzer, the film was a deserving Berlinale champ, and among the smartest, most searing products of the recent Romanian New Wave – a creative boom that has yielded such tough-minded works as “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” and “Tuesday, After Christmas,” but has yet to earn the country a single Oscar nomination.
“Child’s Pose” would be an excellent place to start. Both a darkly warped family drama and a pointed indictment of Romanian institutional corruption, it stars the astonishing Luminita Gheorghiu (a LAFCA award winner a few years back for “Lazarescu”) as Cornelia, a steel-hearted, fur-coated socialite who expertly plays the system to wriggle her loveless lump of a son out of manslaughter charges when he drunkenly runs over a working-class child. The mother-son relationship at its heart is as conflicted as the Cornelia’s increasingly challenged conscience – it’s a film that crackles with genuine moral weight and consequence, and among the year’s finest in any language.
It may seem an urgently focused work, but for Netzer and his screenwriter Razvan Radulescu (a key cog in the New Wave, having also penned “4 Months,” “Lazarescu” and “Christmas,” among others), the project only came about when inspiration for another ran dry.
“We actually had a very different projecting in mind,” Netzer explains. “We went to the Costa Del Sol in Spain because I was interested in making a film about British retirees there, interviewing people there to get their mentality. But it somehow didn’t quite work, so we returned home. And there we had our own families with our own problems and our own domineering mothers – so we switched the story, and went with what we knew.”
He’s not joking about the “domineering mothers” part – though the narrative of “Child’s Pose” is (thankfully) wholly fictional, much of it is inspired by Netzer’s own family life. “Cornelia is, all of her, my mother,” he says frankly. “Razvan met her and was absolutely fascinated by her, so he and I talked a lot about our childhood experiences, and about our relationships to our mothers – mine in particular.”
He describes the process of making the film “a bit therapeutic for me… perhaps even a little bit Freudian.” And indeed, Cornelia is constructed with the kind of respectful but unsparing detail – a brutal kind of sympathy, if you will – that we tend to reserve for describing those we know and love most. Fiercely proud and protective, she’s an admirable woman in many senses, but it’s hardly a flattering character study: the film’s drama is propelled by her willful misapplication of her sharpest virtues. It can’t have been an easy film to write with one’s mother in mind, much less to eventually show her.
“She actually saw the film in Berlin and reacted very positively,” Netzer says guardedly. “I wasn’t quite sure how she’d interpret it. But she took it as a homage, if you like. And of course it’s fiction. She was maybe a bit afraid at the beginning that people would see her differently after they saw the film. But in fact she got many women telling her they’d have done exactly the same for their son in that situation, even though it’s a fictional situation!”
The film stands out from much recent, hardscrabble Romanian cinema by focusing principally on upper-class characters – the hard-up victims of Cornelia’s son’s antics play a vital role in the drama, particularly in a wrenchingly cathartic finale, but Netzer never assumes their perspective. He explains: “Our intention from the beginning to make a film about the high class of Romania. In Romanian cinema, family stories are set so much more often in the lower classes than in the middle classes, and I wanted this film to show another side.”
Telling the story from the grieving family’s point of view might have made for easier tragedy, but Netzer and Radulescu deemed it “more honest” to view it through Cornelia’s eyes: “Hers is a world I understand better than that of the victim’s parents. If I tried to see it through their eyes, it wouldn’t be socially authentic.” Though he believes the story a universal one, its politics are fairly specific. “I believe social structures in Romania are very much as they are described in the film. Institutional corruption is the usual; it hasn’t changed a lot in the past 20 years, in the post-Communist revolution. It remains a big problem.”
Released at home in March, shortly after its Berlinale triumph, the film was eagerly embraced by the Romanian public: Netzer claims it’s the most financially successful local film of the last decade. “People kept talking about it,” he says, still sounding somewhat giddy, even nine months later. “So in the third week of release there was much more interest than in the first week.”
When I ask him if the “New Wave” is recognized as such in its home country, or if it’s the rest of the world that has been late to acknowledge it, he pauses for though. “That’s a tricky question, and I really don’t know the answer,” he admits. “We try to make honest films about things that we know, things we are talking about. That’s very important. But maybe it’s just a talented generation: for example, Cristian Mungiu was in my class at film school. There’s a competitive spirit between filmmakers in Romania that’s quite healthy.”
Promoting “Child’s Pose” on the festival circuit – and now in the Oscar season – has been a full-time job, and he’s looking forward to tackling a new project in 2014, for which he’s already hashing out an idea. After his British-expat project fizzled, would he consider an English-language project again?
“I’m thinking about it,” he says cautiously, “ but it’s difficult to find a good screenplay anywhere. I’m not a director who really writes his own scripts. I had some meetings with some agents in LA and they told me there’s a similar crisis in Hollywood, and then asked me if I have something. But it’s not that easy – you have to understand the life and the society you’re making a film about.”
"Child's Pose" opens in limited release Stateside on February 19, 2014.