A compellingly well-made if minor addition to a major canon, Romanian director Iulia Rugină’s “Breaking News” bears many of the impressive hallmarks of her nation’s New Wave: emotional maturity; a restrained, naturalistic performance and shooting style; and an eye for the intimate moral conundrum that comments on a broader sphere of experience. But its conclusion lacks the devastating precision attack of the movement’s greatest works, as well as a sense, most recently felt in Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation,” of allegorical importance: the feeling that the ripples and quakes of the story are only the most visible effects of tectonic plates of social anxiety shifting far below. Instead of sharpening the focus as the film progresses, Rugină, who enjoyed considerable commercial success at home with 2013’s “Love Building” and its 2014 sequel, gradually loosens her grip on the narrative after a tightly coiled set-up. The resulting diffusion may be true to the messiness and irresolution of real life, but it’s also slightly unsatisfying, making the story smaller and less impactful than it could have been.
“Breaking News” opens with a bang, however. In a blare of emergency sirens and shaky-cam footage we’re dropped into the middle of a crisis scene. A faulty boiler in an industrial plant has caused an explosion and, along with paramedics and firemen, telegenic TV reporter Alex Mazilu (Andi Vasluianu) and his cameraman Andrei Paraschiv (Dorin Androne) are first on the scene. Spotting an opportunity for a scoop, Alex urges a reluctant Andrei to ignore protocol and follow him into the unstable building, which makes him technically responsible when the roof the collapses in on them both, bruising and bloodying Alex, but killing Andrei.
His TV station bosses quickly establish that they’re not liable for the accident (Alex insists that going in was Andrei’s idea, not his) and their thoughts move to memorialization. They task Alex with the unenviable mission of getting Andrei’s reluctant relatives to speak on camera about the man they knew — there’s a tacit admission by the whole team, including Alex, that they themselves knew very little about their colleague. It’s just before Christmas, but Alex dutifully leaves his wife and son and travels to Andrei’s seaside home town, a location that lends the film much of its bleak, buffeted texture: Is there any place more melancholy and empty-feeling than a beach town closed up for the winter?
But Andrei’s relatives don’t open up to Alex, with Andrei’s semi-estranged teenage daughter Simona (impressive newcomer Voica Oltean) proving the most tight-lipped of all. And the more Alex discovers about Andrei, the more he realizes how little he knew him — perhaps how little we can know anybody — and how inadequate a brief, respectfully edited TV report is in encapsulating a life. Alex is caught between trying to rehabilitate Andrei in Simona’s eyes long after the fact, and manipulating her into giving him the interview he needs so that he can go home.
The personal moral dilemma is writ large, though the extent of Alex’s feelings of culpability is never made explicit. Yet the real missed opportunity in the film, economically scripted by Rugină, Ana Agopian and Oana Răsuceanu, is the lack of texture outside the central, simple conceit. The mechanics of an unfeeling, ratings-driven TV network intruding into the grief of private citizens take a back seat to Alex’s inner journey and his developing relationship with Simona.
While the act of piecing together a life from the fragments left behind — the photographs and birthday cards and scratchy home videos — is tantalizingly full of opportunities for revelation, Rugină’s rigorously anti-sensationalist perspective keeps things strictly low-key and conscientiously linear. Within that register, it’s important that her actors are as good as they are; though Vasluianu has a tricky, closed-off character to play, the scenes between him and Oltean’s Simona carry a prickly energy.
What they cannot do, however, is make the story more urgent, more resonant or more topical than it is. Rugină wrote the first draft a decade ago and the script has changed considerably since. Still, it does feel like the media landscape against which the movie is backdropped hails from a bygone era. That’s not to say that, in this time of fake news and mounting distrust of the media, everything has to address journalistic ethics head on. But in 2017, this sensitive and intelligent a tale of one reporter’s crisis of conscience, in contrast to its chyron-ready title, feels a little like yesterday’s news.