Int’l Critics Line: Anna Smith On Romania’s Oscar-Shortlisted ‘Collective’

Magnolia Pictures

When documentary maker Alexander Nanau started filming a team of investigative journalists in the aftermath of a tragic fire, no one knew the staggering level of corruption they would uncover. The blaze at Bucharest’s Colectiv club in 2015 left 27 dead and 180 injured. When more burn victims began dying in hospitals from wounds that were not life-threatening, the Romanian newspaper Sports Gazette started probing into the health service.

In Collective, this year’s Oscar-shortlisted International Feature from Romania, Nanau’s camera follows the team closely as they chase leads and hear from whistleblowers with blood-chilling accusations, ranging from fatal negligence to organized bribery and record falsifying. It becomes clear that the victims were far from safe in the very hospitals that politicians had been boasting about. This is riveting, heartbreaking stuff, and the drama continues to unfold.

As the national media picks up on the story, Nanau films politicians blundering at press conferences, and leading investigator Cătălin Tolontan fielding questions from lesser journalists on TV news shows. There’s no narration, no talking heads. The story is told chiefly through footage of characters who aren’t introduced with a fanfare, but whose identity becomes clearer as the film goes on. They are revealed through their responses to the latest findings, by the way they speak in a meeting, by their facial expressions, and by the way they fiddle with a pen in frustration.

When a new minister of health comes on the scene, we’re not given his CV or his background — we must judge him solely on his behavior and actions. It’s not unlike meeting someone in real life — which adds a strangely nostalgic quality in early 2021 — and this extreme situation will reveal anyone’s true colors swiftly. Vowing to the public that the lies have to stop, Vlad Voiculescu offers Nanau unprecedented access to his own meetings and investigations. We learn more terrible truths along with him, and share his frustration and disbelief as he encounters obstacles made by authorities with blood on their hands. Softly spoken and remarkably open, Voiculescu emerges as one of the film’s most compelling protagonists.

Another is Tolontan, whose investigative skills, grim determination and bravery make him an undoubted hero of the story. Refreshingly uncinematic, he’s an ordinary looking man in an ordinary looking office, achieving an extraordinary thing. It’s no stretch to say that he and his colleagues are saving future lives from their desks.

And then, of course, there are the victims. Thanks to judicial, restrained editing, every appearance from a survivor or a grieving family is gut-wrenching. Tedy Ursuleanu suffered severe burns, but is using her art to tell her story and connect with others. Narcis Hogea is the father of 19-year-old Alex, who died in hospital when he could have survived. Collective ends on Hogea and his family, sharing a moving, intimate moment that reminds us of the human cost of corruption, and the importance of questioning authority. This distressing documentary has relevance way beyond Romania, making it a must-watch for awards season and beyond.

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