Of all the great monster mothers in cinema history, Cornelia Keneres (Luminita Gheorghiu, who sets the standard other performances should be judged by this year) ranks high on the list.

At the start of “Child’s Pose,” Romanian director Calin Peter Netzer’s near etymological study of the profound dysfunctions at the heart of a well-to-do Bucharest family, Cornelia is elegantly attired (she’s a successful architect) and smoking furiously. She’s in mid-rant to her best friend, the equally ritzy Olga (Natasa Raab). She’s airing out her discontents with her only child, Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache), and, in particular, Carmen (Ilinca Goia) the woman he’s been living with for the past three years. When the 30ish, apparently unemployed Barbu isn’t avoiding his mother, he’s verbally and physically abusing her and telling her she’s ruining his life — despite the fact that she’s apparently the one paying for it.


Though it takes place in the densely detailed, specific setting of present-day Romania, Netzer’s vérité-like drama (co-written by the brilliant Razvan Radulescu) touches on universal themes that have been the source of tragedy since the days of Sophocles.

Unlike another son smothered by a mother’s love — Norman Bates — Barbu does not resort to serial killing to cope. But he does fatally run down a 14-year-old boy while trying to pass another driver, pitting his own Audi Avant against the other’s luxury car. At once, Cornelia starts manipulating her highly placed connections to get Barbu off the hook — also, no doubt, to draw him back more fully into her own life. Cellphones play a big part in the film, as Cornelia calls in favors from officials and lawyers. One scene in which she attempts to bribe the driver of the other car to change his testimony especially resonates. Cornelia is a tough cookie, but so is this guy, a smug member of the moneyed class. Puffing on his electronic cigarette and ogling a woman off to the side, he sets his price at 80,000 euros. It is a world run by the privileged and plutocrats.


Her efforts only further alienate Barbu, however. Doped up on tranquilizers, he’s a basket case prone to fits of rage. Maybe he feels remorse for the real tragedy, the death of a child, otherwise forgotten except in the calculations of how to pay off the parents into withdrawing charges. Forgotten, that is, until the last, shattering scene.

In one of the earlier masterpieces of the new Romanian cinema, “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu” (2005), directed by Cristi Puiu and also co-written by Radulescu and co-starring Gheorghiu, a solitary, unloved, marginalized old man endures the absurdities of a callous bureaucracy and the indifference of neighbors as he makes his progress to a wretched, anonymous end. Here much is different, but also the same, as a pampered, well-connected young man is offered a free pass from the system but ends up equally estranged. Though Netzer, Puiu, and many other Romanian directors criticize the society they live in, they never forget that the real tragedy resides in human nature itself.

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