Romanian documentary ‘Collective’ chronicles corruption’s human toll

Magnolia Pictures/Courtesy

Related Posts

Grade: 5.0/5.0

What jumps out most about “Collective” is its unadulterated access. The documentary tells the story of insidious government corruption in Romanian healthcare, and it ends with the country’s temporary Public Health Minister awaiting voters’ judgment of government attempts to root out corruption. The rest is granular, astounding detail from director Alexander Nanau, cementing a documentary that unplugs a deluge of disgrace. 

Where viewers are a sieve, “Collective” feeds confectioner’s sugar. The film takes its time passing through, pushed along with taps from Nanau’s observation of one staggering development after another. The scandals are rapid-fire, each growing more surreal than the previous. And yet, it’s all true, as Cătălin Tolontan of the Sports Gazette and his team of reporters so painstakingly remind the public: the political corruption, the bribes to hospital managers, the whistleblowers. A pharmaceutical dilutes his disinfectants to add to his profits, then forces them on hospitals where they’re diluted again before use in operating rooms. 

Nanau makes the camera a fly on the wall. There’s no need for sit-down interviews — the camera is there through it all. “Collective” is a master class on documentary fundamentals. Parents and loved ones recount their grief after the tragedy that never stops unfolding. As a nightclub, the namesake of the film, goes up in flames, the mutedly panicked band explains that it’s not part of the set. An orange glow peeks onto the stage, then jumps to the rafters. The muted panic turns to visible chaos. The crowd rushes toward the back exit — there were no fire exits in the club — and 27 die immediately that night, trapped in the bottleneck. 

But Nanau wastes no time catching viewers up to speed with Tolontan. He breezes through the immediate repercussions of the fire — the corrupt system that allowed a nightclub without fire exits to be built, the installation of a technocratic government, the death of 37 additional burn victims in hospitals — at the same time effortless and leadenly dense. 

Tolontan, meanwhile, razes the earth, not on a moral mission to right the government’s wrongs, but instead to disseminate the truth to Romania. The film’s editorial side is real time chronicling of a no-nonsense investigative crack team that’s as dramatic as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men.” Who needs Meryl Streep (“The Post”) or Michael Keaton (“Spotlight”) giving orders when Tolontan is front and center? 

Even more prescient is Nanau’s observation of the reform that grows out of the Sports Gazette’s reporting. It’s inherently bureaucratic, and it allows the film’s fine-tuned expertise to shine. “Collective” digs into a system that wholeheartedly disavows facts, following Minister of Health Vlad Voiculescu’s attempts to restore reason — and with it honor — to a government that hinges on the whims of mobsters, on bribery and corruption.

Most strongly here, Nanau goes to great lengths to show that the world of government and the welfare of the public is impossible without truth and transparency. It’s timely, given the pandemic and outgoing administration, and is its own testament to objectivity — Nanau archives objective people doing objective things. 

Regardless, Voiculescu and Tolontan’s team all have their own share of outrage. They’re human, and they’re incredulous that the government forsook its people for profit and continues to rake them over the coals, incredulous that hospital workers left a patient with maggots crawling around a wound and so on.

To fully convey the human pain of the ordeal, Nanau sits in on survivors’ meetings with Voiculescu and Tolontan. He vividly captures Tedy Ursuleanu, so badly burned that her fingers had to be amputated, as she poses for a photo series detailing her scars, and later as she embraces her vulnerability at a gallery to a mix of awe and discomfort. The focus is evident, sharpening the consequences of corruption. 

As a whole, Nanau ensures “Collective” is candid, continuing the soft-spoken and at times subversive streak of hope — personal, individual hope concentrated in a few people — that arcs across the film. 

Contact Dominic Marziali at [email protected].