It’s hard to imagine sadder or more infuriating social conditions than those exposed in tyro documaker Edet Belzberg’s astonishing “Children Underground.” Justly comparable to last year’s Sundance prize-winning “Dark Days,” this verite look at desperately homeless children surviving on the streets and in the subway tunnels of Bucharest will stir debate and emotions. Belzberg’s unsparing camera sometimes portrays a level of cruelty that tests viewers’ tolerance, but her fearless aesthetic is also a measure of the film’s brilliant indictment of any society that can allow its most vulnerable to slip into oblivion. Along with an assured potent life in fests, this tough-minded account should be embraced by a bold micro-distributor.
With the slightest of intros, which explains that thousands of Romanian orphans are the terrible result of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu’s ill-conceived fertility campaign, we are plunked down in the middle of bustling central Bucharest’s ironically named Victory Plaza, where dozens of street urchins roam around amid evidently affluent, indifferent urbanites. Belzberg, clearly having spent much time observing the situation, zooms in on five children.
Sixteen-year-old Cristina, tortured in an orphanage and sent to an insane asylum, escaped to the streets when she was 7. Now, as the boss of her “team” of kids, she’s so hardened that it’s a surprise to realize she’s not a boy. Macarena, 14, is also a girl, but nearly every feminine aspect has been destroyed, leaving a withered soul who lives to sniff the fumes from small bottles of paint that are fought over like gold.
The younger ones are what makes “Children Underground” so gripping and heartbreaking. Mihai, at 12, would be with his family if not for a father of whom he is so terrified that he would rather live on cardboard in a tunnel. (The father admits later to Belzberg’s camera that he once, futilely, chained Mihai by the neck to a radiator to prevent him from escaping.) The boy is uncommonly aware of his situation, quite religious and pained that he is missing school. His 10-year-old sister, Ana, hooked on paint-sniffing, endures regular beatings from bigger boys in front of little brother Marian, who’s all of 8, and apparently hopelessly traumatized.
The sheer pain captured here, particularly in the film’s first two-thirds, is a shock, even for moviegoers who’ve seen dramas (such as “Pixote”) exposing the worldwide problem of children being treated like a disposable item. There’s little relief in a coda, shot a year after the docu’s core, which shows Ana at home with her overwhelmed and unemployed mother, and Marian and Mihai happy in homeless kids’ centers, but Macarena inconsolably alone on the streets. Her last-minute mention to the camera that her twin sister is getting along well in a local school is the last awful irony in a blistering document.
Lensing in vid is effective, with color sometimes fading into bleak B&W. As in the greatest verite work, the camera vanishes from the viewer’s mind altogether.