Venice Film Review: ‘Collective’

An explosive observational documentary revealing the sickening lies and corruption following a fatal nightclub fire in Bucharest in 2015.

Alexander Nanau
Cătălin Tolontan, Mirela Neag, Răzvan Luţac

Running time: 109 MIN.

Every now and then a documentary doesn’t just open your eyes but tears you apart by exposing a moral rift with resonance far beyond the film’s home country. “Collective,” Alexander Nanau’s explosive observational documentary about unfathomable corruption at the heart of the Romanian medical industry, is such a work. Taken on its own, this chilling exposé should send shockwaves through a system so mired in venality that politicians as well as a large segment of the medical profession thought nothing of letting people die so they could stay in power and ensure their kickbacks. But the corrosive corruption revealed has ramifications far greater than just in Romania, for it’s indicative of a worldwide phenomenon in which people feel so disconnected from others that empathy has been replaced by avarice, and strangers are viewed as abstractions. This is truly a documentary for our times, deserving of widespread exposure.

In 2015, a fire in the Bucharest club Colectiv immediately claimed 27 lives, but 37 more people died during the weeks that followed thanks to inadequate hospital facilities and rampant infections. The shameless lies spouted by the Romanian ministers and the revelations that followed brought down the government, though their time out of power was remarkably brief.

Nanau (“Toto and his Sisters”) began shooting during the early days of the scandal, when journalist Cătălin Tolontan, incongruously writing for the sports newspaper “Gazeta Sporturilor,” started questioning the official stories put out by the Minister of Health Nicolae Bănicioiu, who proclaimed that Romanian hospitals were perfectly prepared for emergencies and every bit as good as ones in Germany.

Popular on Variety

Tolontan and his investigative team revealed what the government wanted to keep quiet: Not only were the hospitals, even the so-called specialized burn unit, unequipped to handle burn victims, but the disinfectant used in medical facilities nationwide was being diluted to the point of losing all effectiveness at killing bacteria. As if the immediate deaths following the fire weren’t bad enough, parents were watching their children with agonizing injuries die weeks later from preventable infections. One father even testified that a facility in Vienna offered to take his son but the Bucharest hospital refused to sign off on the transfer. As victims kept dying, the Health Ministry claimed they tested the disinfectants and found they were 95% effective, a reprehensible lie concocted to make the scandal go away.

Instead, the journalists traced the antibacterial liquids to Hexi Pharma and its owner, Dan Condrea, who had the solutions diluted before selling them to hospitals, where they were watered down even further. In a complete betrayal of the Hippocratic Oath, medical professionals were in on it all, pocketing bribe money that was going up and down the chain of command. One brave doctor had been secretly passing documents on to the State Security Services since 2008, alerting them to what was going on, but nothing was done and Intelligence claimed that eight years of reports had mysteriously gone missing.

The second part of the documentary was shot after massive protests forced a change in the technocrat government. The young new Minister of Health, Vlad Voiculescu, was a patients’ rights advocate and, like most of the new ministers, invested in the kind of transparency previously unseen in the country. He granted the director unprecedented access to private meetings, which means Nanau’s camera was witness to months of inquiries during which Voiculescu uncovered the sickening extent to which Romania’s medical establishment was implicated alongside the former administration. Yet the Minister’s herculean efforts to effect change, his willingness to tell the truth to an infuriated population, were only temporary. By continuing to feed lies to an exhausted and suspicious public, the Social Democrats were voted back into power, stymieing the reforms begun by Voiculescu and his demoralized colleagues.

Few viewers will fail to make unnerving comparisons with their own countries while watching government officials blatantly lie to citizens and then get re-elected into office. One of the brilliant elements of Nanau’s work is how he completely focuses on Romania and this one situation while silently insisting on it being seen as a reflection of a worldwide sickness. It’s not just the lies, spouted so often that truth seems an antiquated concept, but the total absence of compassion. There’s a line in “Nothing More,” a song in the film by the Alternate Routes that perfectly sums up the situation: “We are how we treat each other when the day is done.” The day is done, night has fallen, and fewer and fewer people seem concerned by how bleak the morning will be.

Mixed into the investigative section and sequences with the Minister are scenes with Tedy Ursuleanu, a woman who was at Colectiv the night of the fire and sustained severe burns all over her head and body. She survived with significant scarring and the loss of a hand, yet rather than shun the light she’s become a symbol of the tragedy thanks to her resilience and refusal to let this simply fade away. In keeping with the rigorously observational approach he’s always used, Nanau doesn’t interview Ursuleanu or any of the other people in the film: He shot for 14 months and then edited for another 18 months, locating the essential details in all that footage in order to expose the struggle to reassert a humanity made anemic by systemic corruption. At least for the short term, the prognosis isn’t good, but “Collective” will surely help.

Venice Film Review: 'Collective'

Reviewed at Margutta Digital Int'l, Rome, Aug. 23, 2019. (In Venice, Toronto Film Festivals.) Running time: 109 MIN. (Original title: “Collectiv”)

Production: (Documentary – Romania-Luxembourg) A Voodoo Films (in Romania) release of an Alexander Nanau Prod., Samsa Film Luxembourg, HBO Europe production, with the participation of Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk (MDR), Radio Télévision Suisse (RTS), RSI Radiotelevisione svizzera, YES Docu. (Int'l sales: Cinephil, Tel Aviv.) Producers: Alexander Nanau, Bianca Oana. Co-producers: Bernard Michaux, Hanka Kastelicová. Executive producers: Antony Root, Philippa Kowarsky.

Crew: Director: Alexander Nanau. Writer: Antoaneta Opriş. Camera (color): Nanau. Editors: Nanau, George Cragg, Dana Bunescu.

With: Cătălin Tolontan, Mirela Neag, Răzvan Luţac, Camelia Roiu, Tedy Ursuleanu, Vlad Voiculescu, Narcis Hogea. (Romanian dialogue)

More Film

  • West Side Story Remake 2020

    Is it Too Soon to Talk About Next Year's Oscars?

    Hollywood may still be shaking off its awards-season hangover, but before it puts the tuxedos and gowns back in storage, Variety wants to take a look at some of the films that seem destined to dominate the next Oscars race. It’s true that on paper many movies that now appear earmarked for awards greatness may [...]

  • Vicious Fun

    Turner’s Particular Crowd, Breakthrough Ent. Team on ‘Vicious Fun’ (EXCLUSIVE)

    Turner Latin America’s new English-language film label Particular Crowd has kicked off its partnership with Canadian shingles Breakthrough Entertainment and Black Fawn Films with horror-comedy “Vicious Fun,” now in post. “An outrageous mash-up of dread and humor, ‘Vicious Fun’ lives up to its title,” said Craig McGillivray, Breakthrough Entertainment’s VP of distribution. “We are thrilled [...]

  • Gerard ButlerThe world film premiere of

    Gerard Butler to Star in Action Thriller 'Remote Control'

    Gerard Butler will star in the action thriller “Remote Control.” Butler will portray a former war correspondent turned corporate security consultant, whose life is overturned when he receives a mysterious phone call from an unknown source. He soon uncovers the threads of a global conspiracy, finding himself drawn into a fight for his life, pursued by [...]

  • Harvey Weinstein deliberation

    Weinstein Prosecutors Claim Donna Rotunno Op-Ed Is Jury Tampering

    Deliberations in Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial are slated to begin on Tuesday, but there were plenty of fireworks even before Justice James Burke could give jurors instructions. Before the jury was called in, prosecutors accused the former movie mogul’s lawyers of jury tampering, vociferously objecting to a Newsweek op-ed. The article, penned by Weinstein’s lead [...]

  • Justin Timberlake

    Mr Smith Goes to Berlin with Fisher Stevens’ ‘Palmer,’ Starring Justin Timberlake

    U.K. sales agency Mr Smith Entertainment will bring “Palmer” onto the market at this year’s Berlinale. Starring Justin Timberlake and directed by Academy Award winning director Fisher Stevens (Best Documentary Feature – “The Cove” with Louis Psihoyos; “Before the Flood”), the dramatic feature has been buzzing since shooting was announced last fall. Written by Cheryl [...]

  • Numbers

    Oleg Sentsov on Latido Pick-Up ‘Numbers,’ Directed from a Gulag (EXCLUSIVE)

    BERLIN – For the last six years, for Europe’s movie community at least, the most famous political prisoner in the world was the Ukraine’s Oleg Sentsov. Arrested on trumped-up charges of terrorism in 2014 – Amnesty International compared his court case to the show trials of Stalin – Sentsov was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment [...]

  • Michel Hazanavicius'The Specials' premiere and closing

    Michel Hazanavicius To Lead Sarajevo Festival Jury

    Academy Award-winning French director Michel Hazanavicius will lead the jury of the 26th Sarajevo Film Festival. The festival will run from Aug. 14 to 21, 2020. After breaking out in France with the Jean Dujardin-led spy farces “OSS: 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies,” and “OSS: 117: Lost in Rio,” the French director broke onto the [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content