Judging from its finest recent films, modern-day Romania strangles minute by minute on its own petty bureaucracy, its ingrained, weary sarcasm and resentments and the uneasy societal forces destined to keep its people under the gun, playing into their worst human instincts.
Then the occasional grace note is heard. And another side of the story reveals itself.
"Child's Pose," which won the top prize at last year's Berlinale, is one of 64 new films from 26 European Union nations showcased in the Gene Siskel Film Center's 17th EU Film Festival beginning this weekend. It's a superb procedural with a steely comic edge, starring Luminita Gheorghiu as Cornelia, a fur-clad Bucharest socialite whose relationship with her grown son, already lousy, is tested when her "boy" kills a 14-year-old in a rural car accident.
Nearly a decade ago Gheorghiu played the rough-hewn saint of an ambulance nurse in "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu," the film that put the Romanian New Wave on the world map. In the least showy way possible this actress guides "Child's Pose" from first scene to last. Upon hearing of the fatal accident, the woman's energies are poured directly into damage control for her mean-minded ingrate of a son (Bogdan Dumitrache). How to control the police report? In what ways might the key witness (played by Vlad Ivanov, the abortionist in "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days") be bought off?
Working from a script by Razvan Radulescu, director Calin Peter Netzer shoots "Child's Pose" with handheld cameras and a nervous air. The technique's finessed with enough skill not to seem like an affectation. Every performance is terrific, none better than Natasa Raab as the son's wife, estranged from Cornelia for various reasons. A key scene between the two women is a highlight. The EU fest each year at the Film Center is packed with revelations and rewards; "Child's Pose" surely will be high on the list of this year's edition.
From Portugal, the moving and intimate "What Now? Remind Me" asserts the breadth of the 21st century documentary essay genre. The maker and subject of this year-in-the-life account is Joaquim Pinto, who has worked in various areas of the Portugese film community for decades, often as a sound man. Pinto, who is HIV-positive, travels to and from Spain for experimental drug trials; the film's rhythm is very much in fluid, time-bending step with the debilitating effects of the drugs, as Pinto winds memories of his past around the circumstances of his present.
That present, however, is full of life. A reluctant participant in the film project, Pinto's husband, Nuno, appears throughout "What Now? Remind Me" along with the couple's beloved quartet of dogs. Much of the movie unfolds on the land the men are restoring in the Azores region. Patiently, Pinto's film will hold a gorgeous close-up of a dragonfly or a dog or, at one point, a bee on a cheeseburger, and simply allow the viewer to hear what's going on in the air at any given moment.
That's life, according to Pinto: a sustained moment, fully observed and appreciated, if we're on our game.
"What Now? Remind Me" will be screened at 2:15 p.m. Saturday and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. "Child's Pose" screens 7 p.m. Saturday only. This year's line-up begins Friday with "The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas," from Greece, and will end April 3 with "Honeymoon" from the Czech Republic.
For the complete EU Film Festival schedule, consult siskelfilmcenter.org.
Movies on the radio: Michael fills in for Adam Kempenaar with cohost Josh Larsen on this week's edition of "Filmspotting," 11p.m. Friday and midnight Saturday on WBEZ-FM (91.5). For the luxurious podcast edition, go to Filmspotting.net.