BERLIN Romania claimed another major scalp on the European film festival circuit this weekend when "Child's Pose" won the Golden Bear in Berlin, underlining the country's emergence as a powerhouse of hard-hitting cinema in the post-Communist era.
The film, directed by Calin Peter Netzer, tells the story of Cornelia, an obsessive mother who uses every trick in the book to prevent her son from going to jail after he kills a boy in a car accident.
It is the latest in a long list of critical hits that have enjoyed startling success at festivals like Berlin and Cannes in recent years, helping to bring Romania's cinema to a wider audience.
Some of Romania's top directors, who have enjoyed the artistic freedom that flourished after the death of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, dismiss talk of a cinematic "new wave", saying it lumps together very different styles and stories.
But ever since Cristi Puiu's "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu" hit Cannes in 2005, and two years later his compatriot Cristian Mungiu won the coveted Palme d'Or there for the harrowing abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days", Romanian cinema has been firmly on the map.
"It is an acknowledgement, I think, that Romanian cinema is still producing good quality cinema and has been for a few years and it is a good endowment that it is still like this," Netzer told Reuters after receiving the Golden Bear for best film.
While each film differs, there is a common thread of unflinching storytelling and compelling human drama often laid out against the backdrop of a cold and uncaring society.
Netzer said "Child's Pose" was not a critique of Romania today, despite its unflattering portrayal of flashy materialism and casual corruption among the nouveau riche.
"I think basically this is about a relationship, a kind of pathological relationship between mother and son," he told reporters in Berlin after the closing ceremony late on Saturday.
"The rest - the corruption, the framework, the context, all of that is on a separate level and is really only a backdrop."
Victory in Berlin is likely to give the movie a major boost in terms of distribution in Romania and beyond, although some critics wondered whether the alienating figures of both mother and son might limit its appeal.
"There's an instant bond the audience has with the two young women in '4 Months...' which we are deliberately not supposed to have in 'Child's Pose'," said Jay Weissberg, critic at trade publication Variety.
"The mother is a monstrous figure and her son is even worse."
However he, like many others, was impressed by Luminita Gheorghiu's portrayal of Cornelia, one of several standout performances in Berlin-nominated films by mature actresses making the most of the kind of parts rarely written in Hollywood.
Paulina Garcia was the popular winner of the best actress Silver Bear for her turn in Chilean film "Gloria", in which she plays a 58-year-old divorcee who sets out to live life to the full despite her setbacks.
"We all face crossroads in our lives where we can retreat into ourselves or we can hit the dance floor," said "Gloria" director Sebastian Lelio of his character.
The biggest surprise at the Berlin awards ceremony was the best actor prize going to Nazif Mujic, a Bosnian Roma who had never acted before and had to be talked into playing himself in a drama based on his real-life ordeal.
"An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker", made for just 30,000 euros ($40,000), tells the story of how Bosnian hospitals refused to operate on his wife after she miscarried because she was not insured, despite the fact that her life was in danger.
Best director went to U.S. filmmaker David Gordon Green for his quirky road movie "Prince Avalanche" and Iranian entry "Closed Curtain" picked up the best script prize for directors Kamboziya Partovi and Jafar Panahi.
Panahi made the movie in secret in defiance of a 20-year filmmaking ban and was not allowed to travel to Berlin to collect his award.
"Tradition and culture remain, politicians come and go," Partovi told reporters after receiving the honour.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Andrew Heavens)