This might be a heartrending tale of sacrifice and love under tragic circumstances, if it weren't for the fact that Cornelia is palpably a horrible, horrible person, and her son — who shows no signs of being much better — hates her guts. The child he killed is an inconvenient abstract for her, and one suspects what Barbu feels is less guilt than an all-consuming self-pity that this should happen to him. Jobless, hapless, and pampered, he's the kind of terminal manboy who will never be able to make decisions of his own, or stop resenting his parents for making them on his behalf. (Actually dad, played by Florin Zamfirescu, has clearly long since given up on both of them in disgust.) He whines, he chafes in his mother's presence. But notably, he doesn't tell her to stop meddling, because he's too weak to either save his own ass or accept the criminal punishment that would befall most people in his position. The line between love and control may blur between them, but it's not about to be severed.
This Golden Bear winner by Calin Peter Netzer, who co-wrote it with Razvan Radulescu, is a bit over infatuated with handheld jerky-cam at first, a distracting aesthetic choice that does not heighten the immediacy of its mostly cold, conversational scenes. But Netzer (whose prior features, 2003's Maria and 2009's Medal of Honor, were well-received if little seen beyond the festival circuit) settles down after a while, his film's impact gathering as the camera grows more and more still. There are chillingly well-realized tête-à-têtes between Cornelia and her Barbu's well-intentioned, overmatched girlfriend (Ilinca Goia); Cornelia and a reptilian accident witness (Vlad Ivanov) she hopes to bribe into changing his testimony; then a blood-freezing standoff between Cornelia and Barbu himself.
Finally, she meets with the parents of the dead child, two "very simple people" whose desire for justice she tries every trick in the book to manipulate. It's a bravura performance of grief, empathy, and desperation, such that Cornelia might even believe it herself. Like her bleached hair, the emotions she expresses have been inauthentic for so long she can no longer tell the difference. Recalling the mother monster in the Alien movies, she just does what she has to in order to protect offspring who probably won't even be grateful. And like that ghoul, she has umpteen ways to eviscerate anyone who gets in the way. *
CHILD'S POSE opens Fri/21 in Bay Area theaters.