2021 Oscar Reviews: Collective

For the past several years, I’ve attempted to watch as many Oscar-nominated films as possible, and for the past two years I have written reviews of each film and posted them to this blog. Alas, I always run out of time and cannot see everything. This year’ ceremony has been delayed, and I started reviewing before nominations were announced, giving me a decent chance at wide coverage. Today we cover…

[2 nominations for Best Foreign Feature and Best International Feature]

This year’s best film is not up for Best Picture. Instead, the jaw-dropping Romanian film Collective is nominated in the foreign and documentary categories. Though I am still working my way through its competitors, I cannot imagine anything else winning. This film was incredible.

It’s also not a film for everyone. The filmmakers on Collective embed with journalists and bureaucrats as they strive to uncover and untangle a mess of corruption in the Romanian healthcare system. This means a dialogue-heavy film that depends entirely on tons of fast-paced subtitles to really understand what is going on. There is no skimming or zoning out in this film, which demands nothing but 100% attention from its audiences. Yet juxtaposed with the newsroom and boardroom bombshells is some of the most chilling video footage I’ve ever seen. Early on we see real footage from inside the Collective nightclub as its ceiling catches on fire and the terrified concertgoers panic and burn. We already know at this point that 26 of those concertgoers would doe onsite. But this film isn’t about them; it’s about the 38 other victims who made it to the hospital, and then died while receiving supposed medical care. Just as horrifying as the fire footage was a brief segment of covert video from inside a burn ward that showcased a level of care so inadequate that it makes Civil War field hospitals seem pristine. Finally, gentler but no less impactful imagery is presented as we follow a surviving burn victim (pictured in the above screenshot) as she processed life in the aftermath of tragedy via striking art exhibits.

Our story begins with a massive avoidable human tragedy and only gets sadder and crazier from there. It’s difficult to talk about just how overwhelmingly insane the story is without giving spoilers, but trust me, it is nuts. Each new revelation by our journalists or bureaucrats opens a Pandora’s jar (yes, jar. Look it up) of corruption so evil and soulless it is inhuman. And yet, the film is hopeful, at least to me, because even in this center of this madness there are always people who care, fight, and strive for change. In the darkest autocracies, there is still light if we can maintain a semblance of democratic institutions. Here, journalists refused to be silenced. And a single dorky government official took on an entire rotten system almost single-handedly. The most poignant moment in the film, to me, was a scene where Vlad, this young dorky health minister who at first looked like a total pushover, sat down with a doctor as she walked him through the layers and layers of corruption in her hospital. Vlad sits back and says, “How do you solve this?” It was the same question I had. When the world goes just SO SIDEWAYS, how can we fix things? How can we ever get out of the holes we’ve dug as a society? At times it seems impossible. But… we know it’s possible. Because superheroes like Vlad and the Sports Gazette journalists are always out there, somewhere, pushing back and fighting against all odds.

There are of course many, many lessons to be learned from this film, with multiple applications. The most obvious current parallel is the covid pandemic that’s shut down the world for the past year. When the Romanian government tells the public that their hospitals are top-notch and everything is fine, even in the face of a public who knows that dozens of burn victims died in those very hospitals, I cannot help but see Trump and other Republican leaders claiming the virus is a hoax, or is contained, or isn’t a big deal, etc. When the Romanian press grilled our heroic journalist and basically accused him of being unpatriotic, I saw Fox news acting as a party propaganda machine to sow doubt about lockdown measures. And so on. But the parallel that most stood out to me was Vlad, incoming from the new administration with a fresh plan to exact real change and help real people. If that’s not Biden and his administration, I don’t know what is. And Vlad was just 1 guy. Just some dude basically working alone in a cushy little office post. Biden’s got a whole army of little guys stepping in to flip a year worth of pandemic failures and 4 years of administrative failures. So, like I said, even in the darkest depths of hell, there is hope.

My understanding is that documentaries are still eligible for best picture nominations, but that it’s never actually happened. This is a shame, because, as I already said, this film should be at the very very top of the list this year. Not even getting nominated is absurd. This movie was a live-action Spotlight, with incredible access, mammoth revelations, and expertly-crafted storytelling. I highly, highly recommend moving this one to the top of your to-watch list. Just don’t turn away from the screen for a single second.


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