April 20, 2008
Channeling the spirit of Italian neorealism in its bleak and unrelenting portrait of abject poverty, Peter Calin Netzer's Maria is a provocative and articulate social interrogation on the role of globalization, international charity, and the media on the socioeconomic polarization of the working class. Based on a true story (an sad truth that is reinforced in the film's postscript dedication to the real-life Maria who lived from 1962 to 1995), the film resurrects the specter of Ceauşescu's short-sighted natality policy in the opening shot of a pregnant Maria (Diana Dumbrava) picnicking with her six children (and underscored by her son's innocent reiteration of a neighbor's comparison to the family as breeding like rabbits), an idyllic afternoon that soon takes a somber turn when she starts to go into labor in the open field. Cutting to the shot of her husband Ion (Serban Ionescu), a balloon factory foreman listening to the news with his enterprising friend Milco (Horatiu Malaele) that the factory's new owners have rejected their counter-offer and instead, have decided to immediately disband the union and shut down operations (allotting each worker two boxes of balloons as compensation in lieu of reconciling the former owner's debt of unpaid back wages), the sense of inescapable misfortune and cruel fate is foretold in Ion's all too frequent bouts of drunkenness, violent rages, and reckless gambling following his unexpected unemployment (note the interrelated role of delusive games of chance and insurmountable debt that also pervades Djibril Diop Mambéty's Le Franc). Struggling to raise the family singlehandedly in the wake of Ion's increasing abuse and abandonment, she finds momentary solace in the company of her resourceful and good-hearted neighbor Maia (Luminita Gheorghiu), until a tragedy drives her deeper into isolation and despair. Far from a facile portrait of domestic abuse and marginalization, Maria proves to be a potent indictment of the dysfunctional, post-communist society itself - in its abandonment of humanist ideals in the pursuit of wealth, and even media responsibility in the tidy repackaging of human interest stories as entertainment (an exploitation that, in the wake of reality television, proves especially relevant). This sense of moral self-assessment is perhaps best encapsulated in the shot of Maria appraising her looks in front of a full-length mirror - an act that is ominously repeated by her daughter - that is also evoked in her transmitted, real-time television image from a video camera connection at a shop window: a sobering reflection of our complicity in the trivialization of human suffering as commodity and spectacle.