A common political stereotype is that it’s not the scandal that makes you do it. It’s the cover-up. Alexander NanauKoruscating documentary “collectiveExceeds this formulation. Nanau begins with a terrible tragedy that is probably an issue in itself: the 2015 fire in the Bucharest nightclub Colectiv, in which 26 people were killed. But in this film, the fire, the crawling of its skin played right before the credits roll, is just the beginning. The real story unfolds after 38 more people died in hospitals and a terrifyingly small cadre of people tried to figure out why.
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“Collective” begins with reporters from a small Bucharest newspaper, the “Sports Gazette”, which is investigating whether the main supplier of disinfectants for Romanian hospitals has diluted its product. This seems like a promising start to a movie, as Nanau’s camera hovers around while busy reporters are busy Catalin Tolontan and Mirela Neag examine exactly how much the solution has been diluted. But just as the Watergate investigation began with a seemingly innocuous article in the Metro section about an undramatic hotel break-in, that single point becomes what unravels a vast web of corruption.
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Nanau follows the reporter’s cues with cool diligence, showing in cleverly revealed phases how each level of the story is exposed. First, they show that the disinfectant is so diluted that it is somewhat unusable. It appears that the manufacturer used the profits from the dilution to bribe an entire network of hospital and government officials. This leads to the conclusion that hospitals whose disinfectant was essentially water had become bacterial minefields, killing not only the 38 survivors of the fire, but countless others as well. That’s before reporters got a video of a burn patient whistleblower who went unattended for so long that maggots crawled over their wounds.
Much of the early parts of “Collective” is presented as a clear reporting process, one of the best to hit the screens since “Spotlight”. It balances professionalism with the black humor necessary to survive in such an endemically corrupt and damaged society, along with the occasional unexpected burst of insight. At some point, Tolontan – usually a head-down writer who knows how to get a clean and dramatic narrative out of a jumble of complexities – faces challenges as he continues to delve into a line that can be carved in granite to access journalism schools: “There is no ultimate goal in this profession.”
The other protagonist of the film is Vlad Voiculescu, a one-time patient advocate who runs the Ministry of Health after the previous minister melted under the gaze of control. Voiculescu is quick to see that the country’s hospital system, where patients regularly bribe doctors for better care, is being jeopardized by managers who appear to be chosen largely for their ability to take and scoop bribes. As a radiant realist, he understands that any changes he might try will quickly drown in bureaucratic mud (one of his co-workers compares reforming the system to “teaching a pig to dance”), but moves on anyway.
Like Tolontan’s revelation of deception in the
Disinfectant manufacturers, as soon as Voiculescu starts pulling a thread, discovers it
a huge and filthy web that seems almost as built out of greed as
of “don’t give a shit” cynicism and ineptitude. Until the machine turns
on Voiculescu – the ruling party’s Fox News-ish channel brings nationalists to the point
Outrage over his sending transplant patients to foreign hospitals for them
can receive adequate care and possibly survive the procedure – it’s almost that point
impossible to imagine he’s still trying. “Go,” Voiculescu’s father
once told him after a particularly debilitating setback. Most of all
The sunny side idealist will have a hard time disagreeing with this assessment.
With clear eyes and clinical, without detachment from human cost, this is a thrilling drama of catastrophic amorality told with cold anger. [A+]