The scene in which the little girl, Maria, goes missing in Romanian director Constantin Popescu‘s brutally effective, profoundly depressing San Sebastian Competition title “Pororoca” is a movie unto itself. Like most of this 2h30m film’s pivotal scenes, it runs long — extraordinarily so — and its single-take, handheld nature, that ranges from steady and amused, to sinister and watchful, to panicking and juddery, challenges us to locate the exact moment at which everything goes wrong: the exact time the chatty little blonde girl, having wandered out of frame so many times, suddenly never wanders back in.
Like a magician uses misdirection, Popescu uses repetition and banality to lull us away from the scene’s crux, which instead plays out in the changing expressions on her father Tudor’s face (played by Romanian New Wave star Bogdan Dumitrache in what has to be one of the minutest and most unflinchingly raw performances of the year). So even though we’re aware that something terrible is about to happen, the teeming life of this playground park on a hot summer day distracts us: the argument between the crotchety old woman and the young man walking his dog; the kids chasing and clambering on climbing frames nearby; the mums pushing strollers, scolding and buying ice creams. Just imagine, Popescu seems to be saying, if, like the benignly distracted Tudor, you didn’t have any idea you were part of a missing child story. Could you be blamed for the momentary lapse of attention that lasts just long enough for your life to disappear into an absence the exact shape of a 5-year-old girl in denim overalls and braids? The answer is of course not, but you will be anyway, especially by yourself.
The scene does not even end with Maria’s disappearance, carrying on mercilessly across that moment into the immediate aftermath. Liviu Mărghidan’s boldly intrusive camera follows Tudor shakily down the hill to the lake and back up again as he calls for the girl, using cutesy nicknames — sweetie pie, honey — wildly at odds with his mountic panic and fear. It scans the treeline desperately and parses the reactions of the gathering crowd of concerned parents and park workers. It catches the dawning comprehension on the face of Maria’s 7-year-old brother Ilie. It only cuts when, at Ilie’s fearful prompting, and after he’s already called the police, Tudor calls his wife (a terrific Iulia Lumanare), to whom he spoke about domestic nothings just moments before, to tell her he has lost their daughter. It makes it real. “Cristina?” he says in a broken voice into the phone and finally, viciously, the scene cuts.
Thereafter we follow in excruciating detail the days and weeks of police interviews, family negotiations and friendly interventions. In between, are scenes depicting the fraying interactions between Tudor and Cristina, with Tudor’s parental failure hanging in the air between them like a solid thing, unforgivable because there’s either nothing to forgive, or too much to ever be forgiven. It’s accepted wisdom that few relationships can survive the death of a child, and here, inevitably, Cristina ends up taking Ilie and moving back with her parents. The phone calls between her and Tudor become less frequent and more hostile. Meanwhile, he revisits the scene — his playground-zero — every day and starts to become obsessed with a man who also visits the park, who was caught in someone’s photo in an unguarded moment looking at Maria on the day she disappeared.
“Pororoca,” which is the name of a Amazonian tidal bore (a kind of river tsunami) is a grippingly well-made, immensely skillful film but it is also a deeply draining experience, that sinks lower and lower through you like a stone in cold and murky waters. We essentially watch Tudor become unhinged by grief, guilt and uncertainty, devolving into a wild-eyed, wild-haired maniac. The irony of his turning into the very model of someone one would not want around one’s kids is lost on him, but then down there where he is, there is no irony, only pain and rage and brief starbursts of hope that flare out into utter desolation.
There is no denying the effectiveness of the filmmaking or the seriousness of the intent, but such bleakness does prompt the question of why we’re watching, why we’re putting ourselves through this unimaginably horrible situation, one that, it’s no spoiler to warn you, only gets more nihilistic as it progresses toward its spectacularly grisly finale. In its absent child narrative, it has a handy 2017 correlation to Andrey Zvyagintsev‘s Cannes title “Loveless,” but where the Russian film works at an icily allegorical remove, “Pororoca” is immediate and visceral, in the best tradition of Romanian social realism. Indeed if one were to compare the ultimate conclusions of these two films directly, the moral would be clear: for your own sakes, try not to love your children so much, parents. A closer comparison might be harrowing 2015 Quebecois title “Chorus,” or Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” but yet again, Popescu’s film eclipses even those abducted-child touchstones for the sheer unblinking straightforwardness of his approach.
In unthinkable circumstances, people can do unspeakable things. The ragged black hole of Maria’s absence is so greedy it eventually essentially consumes this good man’s soul — and when a man loses his soul, he becomes a monster. This progression feels truthfully, painfully plausible, but it’s also mired in helplessness and despair so extreme that it’s hard to know what to do with all the sorrow and horror engendered by its annihilating, yet still ambivalent finale. Perhaps it can best function as a sort of PSA for people about to embark on parenthood too lightly, because if you’re in that situation and asking yourself, well, what’s the worst that could happen? This is. [B]