The, as it were, "house style" of most Romanian films that get exported to the United States with any sort of visibly marketing push is already four-fifths of the way towards documentary: early milestones of the Romanian New Wave like 2005's The Death of Mr. Lǎzǎrescu and 2007's 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are celebrated in part for how they seem to muscle there way into a real-world environment and just park the camera and watch as messy everyday life tumbles around artlessly all around. So the fact that Collective, the film which has managed to finally snag Romania its first Academy Award Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film/International Film,* is an actual for-real documentary doesn't really reel all that much different. There is more real-world rage here, and a bit less of a narrative shape than I think it would had if it were scripted, but it's still doing what Romanian movies do best: sitting, watching, fuming at the shittiness of a world so merrily corrupt that this story is even plausible.

This does mean, in practice, that Collective is basically just doing the usual direct cinema thing, and I am sorry to say that I do think there are other films that have done direct cinema better. Director Alexander Nanau has decided, not unreasonably, that the best way to frame this examination of a monstrous collapse in the integrity of the Romanian medical profession and the government organisations designed to regulate it is as a three-pronged look in parallel at the government officials holding the bag, the human victims of their malfeasance, and above all the journalists who doggedly labored to bring all of this to light. Three units making a collective whole, you might say, and I have to assume the play on words in the title works in Romanian exactly the same way it does in English: because, explicitly, the title is actually in reference to Colectiv, a Bucharest music club that was the site of the deadliest fire in Romanian history in October 2015, during a show by the band Goodbye to Gravity (whose biggest song, heard in the film, included the English-language sentiment "Fuck all your wicked corruption"; Nanau is not above foregrounding this to milk some irony out of it, but he doesn't make a big deal about it). 27 people died on site, and that was enough to trigger protests against the failed bureaucracy that couldn't even enforce fire codes, leading to the ouster of the government and its replacement with a temporary council of technocrats until an election could be arranged. This is all in the film's backstory. Where we come in is when 37 more people died of their burn injuries in the months following the fire while hospitalised. As reported in Gazeta Sporturilor, a sports-oriented newspaper, many or even most of these later deaths were due to the diluted disinfectants being used by these hospitals, which they bought on the cheap from suppliers knowingly reducing the efficacy of their product far below legal levels.

Collective is, at least initially, all about the offices of the Gazeta, and the dogged work of investigative journalists there (the film doesn't go out of its way to identify any of them, but Cătălin Tolontan is the one who gets the most screentime). While the film's very first scene gives us a peak into the frustration of survivors who are being left in the dark by all the powers that be, and the second scene shows us cell phone footage recorded in Colectiv of the fire itself, the film otherwise is concerned almost exclusively with meetings and conversations, watching from a detached, furiously neutral remove as the journalists talk about how to go about investigating this possible corruption, how to write it up, what to do to pressure the government to do something about it. It's not exactly a journalism procedural, since we never actually see any investigation, but it does shine a bright, stark light on the process by which ugly truths are found and laid bare, from a country that still has a legitimately effective crusading press. Though I did spend the whole movie wondering if it's telling that a sports newspaper was responsible for all of this.

Eventually, the film pulls in two other stands. One of these, introduced relatively early and in what feels like a deliberately opaque way, focuses on Tedy Ursuleanu, an artist and victim of the Colectiv fire, who has taken to putting her mangled body in the center of performance art pieces that challenge the audience to consider their reaction to these events, and who we see receiving therapy and a robotic hand to help her recover from her injuries. The other focuses on Vlad Voiculescu, the interim minister of health, who takes on the job in the strong conviction that good men like himself can fix the world if they just throw themselves into fighting corruption when it's brought to light, only to discover that some things are so entrenched and covered in a tangle of shadowy bureaucratic maneuvers that it is, in fact, functionally impossible to do anything about them. Obviously, both of these threads "fit" into Collective, which is taking a God's-eye view of the fire and its human and social cost. But they fit only because I already knew that fact. In the moment-by-moment construction of the film, this ends up feeling more diffuse than illustrative, and it's a deep disappointment of the movie that it continuously grows shaggier and more shapeless as it goes along.

This in part an accident of history: the world didn't give Nanau a nice narrative structure, and the fallout from the Colectiv fire, a year removed, ended up being pretty frustrating and inconclusive and pointless in ways that the film's gradually-increasing fuzziness matches. And one can even suggest that the astonishingly abrupt ending, an angry "oh well, whatever" shrug that simply cuts the film off without ceremony, is doing basically the same thing. But "I think I get, intellectually, why this is happening" is a far cry from "I am happy that I watched a motion picture where this happened". And this is sort of where Collective ends up: all that focused rage, so smartly captured in the unblinking objectivity of the opening, doesn't feel like it ends up doing any thing. And of course "doing a thing" isn't the movie's job: its job is to watch events and share them with us, and it does this to thrilling effect, placing us inside the tumultuous attempt to make sense of history right as its happening like few movies about journalism ever have. But it's certainly less than the sum of its parts.

*Among the films to have been rejected for this honor: Mr. Lǎzǎrescu and 4 Months... themselves, as well as Police, Adjective, Sieranevada, and "I Do Not Care If We Go Down in History as Barbarians". So obviously hooray, but also man, fuck the Oscars.