The 48th Karlovy Vary Film Festival closed over the weekend with a handful of juried awards for its premieres. I'm afraid I didn't see the winner of the festival's crowning Crystal Globe prize, Hungarian director Janos Szasz's WWII drama "The Notebook." I can, however, endorse the shared Best Actress award for the strong female ensemble of Lance Edmunds's painterly but ponderous US indie "Bluebird": Amy Morton, Louisa Krause, Emily Meade and Margo Martindale. Less so: a Special Jury Prize for British director Ben Wheatley's vastly disappointing "A Field in England." I caught up with the film in the UK on its unconventional multi-platform release (cinemas, DVD, VOD and terrestrial TV, all on the same day) last Friday, and will discuss it further at a later point.

I'm particularly pleased that local auteur Jan Hrebejk  took the Best Director award for "Honeymoon," which I reviewed in my last festival roundup. Where that one reviewed three world premieres, today's will examine a trio of standouts first unwrapped at previous fests.

Inasmuch as the Romanian New Wave of the past decade or so can be said to have a poster girl -- albeit one of suitably solemn expression and attire -- Luminita Gheorghiu may well be it. The veteran actress, long revered in her homeland, has been a vital supporting presence in a number of the movement's key films: "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" (which won her a left-field LA Critics' award), "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," "Aurora" and last year's "Beyond the Hills." The industry owed her a starring vehicle, and she's been given a spectacular one in Calin Peter Netzer's Berlinale Golden Bear winner "Child's Pose" (A-), a snappish, seething, darkly funny drama of class and ethics that she presides over with iron-backed imperiousness. On the one hand, it's easy to imagine Jacki Weaver or Helen Mirren feasting on this part in a Transatlantic remake; on the other, few filmmaking nations can match Romania these days for this kind of severe take on institutional rot.

At first glance, Gheorghiu's narrow-eyed, fur-clad society marm Cornelia is the latest addition to cinema's rich portrait gallery of monster mothers, ranging from "Mommie Dearest" to Mo'Nique's Mary Jones: introduced at her birthday party, her sense of oppressive entitlement is apparent in everything from her posture to her expensively bleached hair. She bats away her mild-mannered doctor husband as if he were a hovering waiter, but dotes on her adult layabout son, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) -- while still openly acknowledging his worthlessness. Barbu's similarly jaded girlfriend Carmen (Ilinca Goia, excellent) receives equal condescension from Cornelia, minus any residual affection.

Cornelia's queen-bee status, however, is challenged when Barbu perpetrates a DUI collision that kills a 14-year-old boy from a working-class family. With the police taking an understandably hard line against the privileged, seemingly remorseless offender, it's left to his mother to barge her way into the case with elegant aggression, pulling every class-related string at her disposal to ensure preferential treatment. Whether handsomely paying off witnesses or using her husband's contacts to change the results of inconvenient alcohol tests, she does it all with the same unblinking refusal to excuse or apologize: if her son's crime is an annoyance, even a disgrace, to her, she'll be damned if he's going to be punished for it by anyone but herself.  

That Cornelia's manipulation of the authorities succeeds to the extent it does, however, is allowed to reflect less poorly on her than it does on the corrupt crevices of the Romanian legal system. Razvan Radulescu's beautifully turned script retains a kind of chilly admiration for its unrelenting protagonist throughout, with her gormless, graceless son emerging in parallel as the passive monster of the piece. That Cornelia's expert amorality is being wasted on such an unworthy beneficiary lends a warped nobility to her efforts. Meanwhile, Gheorghiu's swaggering, sour-tongued performance peels back the mask of hauteur and battle-ready makeup to show -- if only in unguarded flickers -- the profoundly disappointed, needfully self-reliant woman beneath. (She'd make one hell of a Miranda Priestley.)

Andrei Butica's roving, inquisitive camera seems partly complicit in her performance and perspective, sizing up and placing subsidiary characters just so -- only to turn markedly still as the film tiptoes toward an inevitable faceoff between Cornelia and the bereaved. Are her powers of persuasion stymied by stony grief, or shut down in the name of tactics? The conditions of unconditional love are brought harshly to bear on the final act of this blistering film, and indeed on Gheorghiu's increasingly ashen face: there's more than one way to lose a son, it seems.

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