“Collective” starts as one of the greatest journalism movies of all times, and then it goes one step further, exposing democracy at war with itself. Romanian director Alexander Nanau’s bracing, relentless documentary tracks the aftermath of the 2015 fire that killed 64 people, hovering at the center of a system on the verge of collapse. And then it does, much like the flames that engulfed Bucharest’s Colectiv nightclub and sent the nation into a tailspin, as “Collective” sits at the center of the chaos with an unflinching gaze.
Nanau adopts a remarkable vérité approach to the material that, outside of some brief introductory credits, lets the footage speak for itself. From its opening moments to the devastating finale, “Collective” plays like a gripping real-time thriller, merging the reportorial intensity of “Spotlight” with the paranoid uncertainty of “The Manchurian Candidate” as it explores the national fallout of a tragedy that won’t let up.
“Collective” doesn’t dwell much on the terror of its inciting incident, dispensing of the nightclub event in amateur video from the ill-fated heavy metal performance that shows how quickly the mayhem took hold. While the cause was illegal pyrotechnics, that miscalculation receded to the background as the body count rose with time: Though 27 people died in the fire, another 37 perished from burn injuries at the hospital in the ensuing weeks, leading a team of investigative reporters to unearth a vast corruption at the heart of the country’s medical system. Set across a year and half of breathless investigation and political grandstanding, “Collective” is a thrilling window into the nature of a society that resists every effort to do the right thing.
Its initial hero emerges from an unlikely place: Sports Gazette reporter Catalin Tolontan works for a publication more invested in national athletic issues than medical malpractice, but he and colleague Mirela Nega run the phones with an aggressive work ethic that would leave Woodward and Bernstein in awe. Through tense phone calls to revealing sources, reams of hospital data, and even their own chemical tests, the team assembles the first of several revealing exposés to explain the mounting death toll.
At first, their reporting details how medical supplier Hexi Pharma diluted the disinfectants it provided to the hospitals housing burn victims, essentially guaranteeing more fatalities. Further investigation shows that company director Dan Condrea was well aware of the dilution for years, suggesting a much larger institutional problem. The ink is barely wet from their reporting when Condrea dies of an apparent vehicular suicide, as conspiracies swirl about mob involvement, and cries for new governmental oversight reach a fever pitch. This all takes place in the movie’s frantic first chapter, and “Collective” is just getting started.
It’s here that Nanau makes the bold decision to switch focus to new minister of health Vlad Voiculescu, a fresh-faced expert and activist tasked with leading a transparent overhaul of Romania’s dysfunctional medical system, even as he faces with pushback at every turn. Forced to confront Romanian hospitals overrun by capacity issues and doctors prone to bribes, Voiculescu may have invited the cameras into his office to capture the righteous nature of his efforts, but instead they show him at odds with a no-win scenario: The media shouts for answers, the doctors don’t want to play ball with reform, and an incoming election season threatens to stonewall any possible long-term solution.
“Collective” assembles such an engrossing narrative that it’s easy to forget it takes place several years in the past. Much as the 2016 presidential election forced American progressives to confront the divisive nature of the country, Romania’s 2017 results — in which the party responsible for the corruption at hand won in a landscape — amounted to a brutal wakeup call that denies the movie any obvious path to a cathartic finale. Nevertheless, Nanau keeps the stakes high by maintaining constant forward momentum, as the drama careens through a dense story that encompasses nearly every layer of Romanian society.
The movie tracks heated newsroom chatter all the way to the printing press, and later, exhaustive government strategy sessions. As its anxious, stone-faced subjects engage in constant debate, “Collective” at times suggests the disquieting, socially-conscious naturalism of the Dardenne brothers.
At the same time, the movie’s complex editing strategy connects the dots in the vast machinery of a world at odds with itself. In one of the more striking moments, the elaborate photo shoot for burn survivor Tedy Ursuleanu echoes later when one of the pictures stares down at the beleaguered health minister from his office: the victim and the earnest bureaucrat, trapped in the same institutional mess and equally despondent about escaping its boundaries. As Voiculescu considers the disinterest in hospital reform from the nation’s doctors, and a furious citizenry growing impatient with his inability to mine solutions from the muck, the minister grows exasperated at every turn. “It’s like we are living in separate worlds,” he says.
“Collective” navigates that wreckage with a throbbing sense of purpose. When Tolontan is criticized in a television interview for his bombshell reports, charged with making it harder for doctors to do their jobs, he doesn’t hesitate to clap back. As Tolontan puts it, his mission is to provide people with “more knowledge about the powers that shape their lives,” and the movie takes its cues from that assertion. Though it ends in a staggering pileup of hopeless faces, it hints at the slightest excuse for optimism, with its journalists sitting down to assess the next story on their docket. No matter the devastation they have to face, “Collective” demonstrates the potential for moral courage to endure, under even the most dire efforts to snuff it out. No matter who runs the show, the work goes on.
Magnolia Pictures and Participant will release “Collective” in theaters and on demand on Friday, November 20.
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