‘Collective’ Review: When Tragedy Consumes a Nation

Nanau has embraced a rigorous observational approach in “Collective.” He served as his own cameraman — he has a sharp eye — and was one of the editors. There’s some explanatory text at the beginning, but no talking-head interviews, onscreen IDs or other standard prompts. Instead, the story is largely conveyed through conversations and TV news reports playing on monitors. The absence of narrative wayfinding aides helps streamline the documentary and adds to its whooshing momentum. It’s engrossing, but every so often you may find yourself wondering about the time frame and squinting at the tiny dates on cellphones and newspapers.

Whatever questions you have, though, are eclipsed by the bombshells that keep exploding. (Even so, I would have liked to know how a sports newspaper that usually features soccer teams in its headlines cultivated such an astonishing investigative team.) Sometimes Tolontan and his reporters chase down leads, complete with surveillance stakeouts and telephoto lenses; at other times, the scoops walk through the front door. Nanau is in the room with the journalists when they discuss the stunning revelation that partly explains why so many survivors continued to die: Disinfectants were being heavily diluted before even reaching hospitals.

The shocks kept coming. There were bribes, an offshore bank account and a fatal crash. About midway through the movie, the health minister steps down and is replaced by Vlad Voiculescu. A former patients’ rights advocate in his early 30s, Voiculescu has an empathetic smile that fades as the extent of the crisis becomes clear. He too gives Nanau extraordinary access, and he also offers one of the few references to Romania’s totalitarian past. That history rears up again as Voiculescu’s reforms are met with resistance, including from populists who put a self-serving, nationalist spin on critiques of the country’s catastrophic health care system.

Some documentaries reassure you that the world is better when they’re over (inequity has been exposed); others insist it could be better (call the number in the credits to see how). “Collective” offers no such palliatives. Instead, it sketches out an honest, affecting, somewhat old-fashioned utopian example of what it takes to make the world better, or at least a little less awful. The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice. But as “Collective” lays out with anguished detail and a profound, moving sense of decency, it takes stubborn, angry people — journalists, politicians, artists, activists — to hammer at that arc until it starts bending, maybe, in the right direction.

Not rated, but be aware that the movie has some horrific imagery. In Romanian and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. In theaters and available to rent or buy on iTunes, Google Play and other streaming platforms and pay TV operators.

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