When Alexander Nanau’s Collective premiered in Venice last year, Jay Weissberg, dispatching to Variety, called it “truly a documentary for our times.” Collective has been garnering raves of a similar caliber all along the festival circuit ever since, and now, it’s finally arrived in virtual cinemas in the U.S. and UK.
On October 30, 2015, a fire broke out in Colectiv, a rock club in Bucharest, immediately killing twenty-seven and wounding 180. In the days and weeks that followed, thirty-seven more victims died of injuries that should not have been life-threatening. Cătălin Tolontan, then the editor of the sports daily Gazeta Sporturilor, led an investigation that exposed a network of mobsters in cahoots with high-placed politicians who were forcing diluted disinfectants on Romania’s hospitals. “Collective’s first half or so plays like a docu-version of something like All the President’s Men and Spotlight, where tense conversations around conference tables, writers huddled over computers, and editors issuing orders from behind desks makes for compelling drama,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “But Nanau keeps pushing forward, following his protagonists and watching them pull an errant thread until, suddenly, the whole sweater is unraveling.” It isn’t long before “the malfeasance on display here is a top-down situation, and you soon realize that this isn’t a look at one horrific incident so much as a portrait of metastasizing social rot.”
Writing for Sight & Sound,Trevor Johnston draws a comparison between Nanau’s approach and Frederick Wiseman’s in that Nanau “avoids expositional voiceover or direct interviews with his subjects; instead, his film builds its considerable power through keen observation and telling editorial juxtaposition.” For Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, the “absence of narrative wayfinding aides helps streamline the documentary and adds to its whooshing momentum. It’s engrossing, but every so often you may find yourself wondering about the time frame and squinting at the tiny dates on cellphones and newspapers. Whatever questions you have, though, are eclipsed by the bombshells that keep exploding.”
Uncovering corruption is “like opening a Pandora’s box, finding another box inside, and another one after that, each filled with a stranger-than-fiction plot twist and each more rotten than the other,” writes Diego Semerene at Slant. “Collective attests to the political urgency, and the documentary-esque realism, of Romanian filmmakers working in the realm of fiction, such as Cristian Mungiu, Corneliu Porumboiu, and Calin Peter Netzer.” Most reviewers are reminded of Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), in which a dying old man is shuffled from one hospital to the next until it’s too late. “But as a Romanian physician said of Puiu’s movie, it’s even worse if you stick around,” wrote Amy Taubin in Artforum this summer. “Collective gives us a glimpse of the top—the gangster hospital managers and the government functionaries who appointed them, all helping themselves to taxpayer money while providing care that kills.”
At the top of his interview with Nanau for Reverse Shot, Eric Hynes calls Collective “an astonishing record of reportorial commitment and integrity, and a virtuosic expression of observational filmmaking. It is also a de facto dissection of corruption that’s perhaps unmatched in cinema, and arrives during a time when governmental and societal malfeasance has erupted around the globe. While remaining minutely attentive to the circumstances unfolding in Romania, Nanau’s film somehow exposes roots that we’re unearthing half a world away.”
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