Social realism is once again a hot ticket at the Berlinale, with several titles in Competition pertaining to the genre. Two of these – Calin Peter Netzer’s Pozitia Copilului (Child’s Pose) and Danis Tanovic’s Epizoda u zivotu beraca zeljeza (An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker) – come from Eastern Europe, which of recent has become a veritable wellspring of excellent social realist dramas of the grittiest kind. Unfortunately, only one of them lives up to this reputation.
The former, from Romania, focuses on Cornelia (Luminita Gheorghiu), a wealthy and elderly architect whose son Barbu (Bogdan Dumitrache) has accidentally run over and killed a child from a poor family on the freeway. Although despised by her son, she embarks on an unsolicited crusade, employing every means at her disposal to get Barbu off the hook, be it by calling on her wide-ranging connections or, fail that, through petty bribery. The film’s characterizations constitute perhaps the film’s strongest feature, which through an outstanding use of ambivalence produce the moral complexity that the story demands. Cornelia is a ruthless woman and her endeavour is motivated as much by brazen self-interest as by motherly love, keeping the viewer in a constant flux between empathy and contempt. Barbu is equally difficult to pin down, his petulant self-righteousness constantly undermining the contrition that so evidently haunts him.
As with the moral constitution of the characters, the accident itself disallows categorical judgement. While killing a child is an unequivocal atrocity, Barbu’s act is wholly relatable: he only exceeded the speed limit to pass a belligerent driver and couldn’t have foreseen the child recklessly running over the freeway. All these elements add up to a finale of stupefying intensity when the family of the child is brought into the picture for the first time. There is of course a strong allegorical element to this story, with the disparity between the culprits’ and the victims’ social status commenting on Romania’s contemporary social realities. However, it is the overt human and ethical elements that are the most compelling, making for a haunting drama that stands a strong chance of winning the Berlinale’s top prize.
Considering that Bosnian director Danis Tanovic’s resume includes the film No Man’s Land, which in 2001 won a slew of awards including the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, one would have expected a lot more from Epizoda u zivotu beraca zeljeza. Unfortunately, its excessive emphasis on understatement results in an uninvolving, at times overly conventional portrait of the wretched reality it describes.
The film centres on a Roma family leading a materially squalid existence. Its only source of income comes from the scrap metal that Nazif (Nazif Mujic, re-enacting his actual experience), the paterfamilias, collects from garbage dumps and sells for a pittance. When his wife suffers a miscarriage, the price of the surgery necessary to save her life is too exorbitant for the family to afford, embarking Nazif on a race against time to somehow acquire the means necessary to pay for the surgery.
As implied by the film’s title, this is an all-too ordinary predicament for the family – and, by extension, for all Roma people – whose existence is defined by such tribulations. In order to convey this, the characters assume a perpetually impassive demeanor no matter what horror befalls them. However, this is pushed beyond a plausible extreme, thus eroding the impact of the story. Other elements also contribute to this, for example the unsubtle use of devices such as repeatedly portraying the loving preparation of delicious-looking food to emphasize the family’s humanity or the use of unnecessary lines such as, “Dear God, why do you make poor people suffer?” This is regrettable, for the Roma’s persisting status as universal pariahs urgently demands the constructive dialogue that this film aspires to generate.