In 2015, a fire swept through a Bucharest nightclub without emergency exits. Footage early in “Collective” (in theaters and on-demand Friday) captures the frighteningly fast flames engulfing the crowded club just after, fittingly, a punk band scream a song about endemic corruption in the Eastern European country. The fire left 27 dead and 180 injured. But the real scandal came after; another 37 people died of burn wounds that shouldn't have been life threatening.
It's in that aftermath that Romanian director Alexander Nanau began trailing the journalists of Gazeta Sporturilor, a sports tabloid that under editor Cătălin Tolontan consistently advanced the story with dogged reporting. They uncovered the heinous reason for the out-of-control bacteria in Romanian hospitals: a firm called Hexi Pharma, along with a mafia network of politically appointed hospital managers, were diluting disinfectant. Seldom will you find an uglier or more apt metaphor for corruption than — in one of the Sporturilor's breaks — the image of maggots crawling in uncleaned wound.
So, no, “Collective” is not a walk in the park. But it's admirably awake to the cause-and-effect tragedies that can follow seemingly slight or obscure governmental decisions. As a journalism drama, it's as absorbing as “Spotlight" and more sober than “All the President's Men." Filmed in a observation style, there are meetings with whistleblowers, photo stake-outs and deep data dives —the nuts and bolts of reporting. But scoops yield no high-fiving celebrations, just mournful disbelief at the wanton cruelty and ineptitude they uncover. “The story is so mind blowing I’m afraid people will think we’re crazy,” one reporter says.
“Collective,” a Magnolia Pictures release, is unrated by the Motion Picture Association of America but contains violent imagery. In Romanian with subtitles. Running time: 109 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP