Something’s Rotten in Romania

‘Collective,’ Alexander Nanau’s documentary about corruption in Romanian society, has lessons to impart worldwide.

One of the many good reasons to check out Alexander Nanau’s new documentary Collective, which began screening last Friday, November 20, is to simply see an exceptional piece of nonfiction filmmaking: a muckraking procedural presented in a Frederick Wiseman-like observational style while infused with the low-key brio of a thriller. A fire at the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, in 2015, killed 27 on site. But the subsequent 37 deaths at various area hospitals that led editor-in-chief Cătălin Tolontan and fellow journalists at the Gazeta Sporturilor—a sports tabloid, believe it or not—to investigate and ultimately expose medical malpractice and criminal malfeasance within the Romanian health-care system.

Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.

Nanau spends the first half of Collective chronicling the efforts of Tolontan and company, which includes not only the expected press conferences, but also stakeouts of people like Dan Condrea, the owner of a pharmaceutical company who, the journalists later revealed, sold diluted disinfectant to hospitals that led to many of those hospital deaths. In a twist that proves that truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction, Condrea is later found dead in a car accident that may or may not have been a suicide.

All of this is gripping in the manner of Alan Pakula’s classic 1976 film adaptation of All the President’s Men, with Nanau studiously avoiding sensationalism, trusting the appalling revelations to speak for themselves while keeping the pace moving urgently along. But the real coup of Collective comes in the film’s second half, which suddenly shifts focus from the Gazeta Sporturilor journalists to Vlad Voiculescu, a young new Minister of Health brought in to address the public outrage brought up by the paper’s explosive reporting. A former patients’ rights advocate, Voiculescu is a classic example of an idealist who finds  grander social forces beyond his control hamstringing him. Thanks to the startling level of access that Voiculescu granted Nanau, we bear witness to a devastatingly in-depth look at a man who gradually discovers just how rotten the Romanian government is at its core.

Vlad Voiculescu in COLLECTIVE, a Magnolia Pictures release. ©Alexander Nanau Production, Samsa Film, HBO Europe 2019. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

The Social Democratic party, which previously held power before the scandal, and which, through a coordinated campaign of lies, misinformation, fear-mongering, and nationalism, swept back into power in 2016 counteracted Voiculescu’s attempts at transparency. Recent filmmakers have painted a grim, and sometimes grimly funny, picture of Romanian society. But Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days), and Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest) have nothing on the realities Nanau lays bare so sharply and mournfully in Collective. Nanau’s film suggests that the dysfunction in the upper echelons of Romanian government can’t help but trickle down into the rest of the society.

Nanau comes closest to overt editorializing comes in the film’s last scene. After visiting the grave site of their son, one of the victims of the Colectiv fire, we see his father, mother, and sister driving away to the strains of a song featuring lyrics like, “We are love/we are one/we are how we treat each other when the day is done.”

Both the journalists and Voiculescu uncovered stunning lack of human empathy in not just the Romanian health system, but in the political system in general. Even the film’s English title, Collective, suggests, intentionally or not, Nanau’s implicit take on the corruption he depicts with such clear-eyed detachment. Maybe Romania could have saved all of those 37 lives had people acted out of a sense of obligation toward their fellow citizens instead of their own self-interest. Nanau’s film plays now as a cautionary tale, for every country, of just how destructive such rampant selfishness can truly be.

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Kenji Fujishima

Kenji Fujishima is a writer and editor based in New York City. He has previously written about film for publications including Village Voice, Slant Magazine, and Paste, and about theater for TheaterMania.

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