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In Focus: Trying to right a terrible wrong in Romania

Catalin Tolontan in "Collective."
Catalin Tolontan in "Collective."Magnolia Pictures

A metalcore singer bellows out lyrics denouncing the corruption in government in a video in Romanian filmmaker Alexander Nanau’s thrilling, dismaying, and uplifting “Collective.” The number ends, and the crowd applauds. Noting a white plume coming from the ceiling, the singer says, “Something is on fire here.” The audience seems amused by what they think is a pyrotechnic effect. “That’s not part of the show,” the singer says. Moments later the club erupts in flame. People scream, tumble together in panic, gasp from smoke, and the video image tumbles chaotically, turns red, and ends with a black screen.

In an event that was eerily similar to the Station nightclub fire, which killed 100 people in Warwick, R.I., in 2003, this happened in the popular Bucharest venue Colectiv. Twenty-seven died and 180 were injured on Oct. 30, 2015. When it was learned that the club had no fire exits and had bribed officials to overlook safety violations, thousands demonstrated against the government.

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But the corruption ran deeper. Even though medical facilities were overwhelmed, to save money — and face — authorities refused to transport many of the most critical victims to hospitals in other countries, claiming that medical care in Romania was “as good as in Germany.” Within days many died in agony from massive infections.

His suspicions aroused, Catalin Tolontan, an investigative journalist for the unlikely publication Sports Gazette, followed up on a lead that hospitals had been using a diluted disinfectant. Staking out the factory that produced the antiseptic and surveilling the homes of hospital managers who had signed off on its use, Tolontan and his associates uncover a network of cynical greed and malfeasance that involves the mafia. His crew of reporters is like the Boston Globe team in “Spotlight” (2015) or Woodward and Bernstein in “All the President’s Men” (1976) and Nanau’s observational, unfolding account takes on the suspense and tension of a thriller.

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Catalin Tolontan in "Collective."
Catalin Tolontan in "Collective."Magnolia Pictures

Nanau gains access to Tolontan as he pursues his investigation, which takes the intrepid reporter into an increasingly perilous demimonde. One key suspect dies mysteriously in a fatal automobile crash deemed a “suicide” by the authorities. Tolontan and his colleagues are denounced by those in power and receive death threats against themselves and their families.

But courageous whistleblowers come to Tolontan’s aid. Distraught that they had been party to blame for such murderous malfeasance, they provide him with testimony, documents, and other material. A damning video of a burn victim whose wounds are crawling with maggots is both gruesome evidence and a shocking metaphor of the rotten system Tolontan is uncovering.

Tolontan is not the only hero of the story. Nanau also wins the confidence of Vlad Voiculescu, an outsider and a patients’ rights advocate who replaces the disgraced health minister forced to resign. Tolontan follows the untested newcomer as he comes to grips with the enormity of his task and the seemingly monolithic forces against him. Voiculescu fears he’s being used to add respectability to a cover-up, but he persists in his quixotic effort. He is inspired by the courage of the victims, especially Mariana Oprea, a young woman severely burned in the fire who shows photographs of her scarred body in a gallery. Her presence is a reminder of the crime and a rebuke to the guilty.

“Collective” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room starting Nov. 20 at coolidge.org/films/collective.

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Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.