A common political cliché says that it’s not the scandal that gets you; it’s the cover-up. Alexander Nanau’s coruscating documentary “Collective” supersizes that formulation. Nanau begins with a terrible tragedy, which is likely enough of a subject on its own: the 2015 fire at Bucharest nightclub Colectiv, which killed 26 people. But in this movie, the fire—skin-crawling footage of which plays just before the credits—is just the beginning. The real story takes place afterward, when 38 more people died in hospitals, and a frighteningly small cadre of people tried to find out why.
“Collective” kicks off with the reporters from a small Bucharest newspaper, the “Sports Gazette,” investigating whether the main supplier of disinfectant to Romanian hospitals has been diluting their product. This might appear to be an unpromising beginning for a movie, with Nanau’s camera hovering around while diligent reporters Catalin Tolontan and Mirela Neag dig into exactly how much the solution was watered down. But just as the Watergate investigation started with an innocuous-seeming Metro section item about an undramatic hotel burglary, this single point becomes the thing that unravels a vast web of corruption.
Following the reporters’ leads with a cool diligence, Nanau shows in deftly revealed stages how each level of the story is uncovered. First, they show that the disinfectant is so diluted as to be somewhat useless. It appears that the manufacturer was using the profits made from the dilution to bribe a whole network of hospital and government officials. This leads to the conclusion that hospitals whose disinfectant was essentially water had become bacteria minefields that killed not only those 38 survivors of the fire but untold thousands of others. That’s before the reporters are given a video by a whistleblower of burn patients left untended for so long that maggots were crawling across their wounds.
Much of the first parts of “Collective” are presented as a crisp reportorial procedural, one of the best, in fact, that has hit screens since “Spotlight.” It balances professionalism with the black humor necessary for survival in such an endemically corrupt and damaged society, along with the occasional unexpected burst of insight. At one point, Tolontan—normally a head-down writer with a knack for teasing a clean and dramatic narrative out of a mess of complexities—faces down challenges to his continued digging into the story with a line that could be carved in granite at the entrance to journalism schools: “There is no final goal in this profession.”
The movie’s other protagonist is Vlad Voiculescu, a one-time patient advocate who is placed in charge of the Ministry of Health after the previous minister melted under the glare of scrutiny. Voiculescu quickly realizes that the nation’s hospital system, in which patients regularly bribe doctors to receive better care, is dangerously compromised by managers who appear chosen mostly for their ability to take and shovel out bribes. A bright-eyed realist, he understands that any changes he might attempt will be quickly drowned in bureaucratic sludge (one of his co-workers compares reforming the system to “teaching a pig to dance”) but pushes on regardless.
Like Tolontan’s revelation of deceit at the disinfectant manufacturer, once Voiculescu starts pulling at a thread, it unearths a vast and sleazy web that appears constructed almost as much from greed as from “don’t give a fuck” cynicism and ineptitude. By the time the machine turns on Voiculescu—the ruling party’s Fox News-ish channel gins up nationalist outrage over his sending transplant patients to foreign hospitals so that they can receive decent care and potentially survive the procedure—it’s almost impossible to imagine that he’s still trying. “Leave,” Voiculescu’s father tells him at one point after a particularly debilitating setback. Even the most sunny-side idealist will have a hard time disagreeing with that assessment.
Clear-eyed and clinical without being detached from the human cost, this is a riveting drama of catastrophic amorality told with a cold fury. [A+]