Întregalde is a humble, human-scaled story expertly told and sure to be one of the best films of the year.
Radu Muntean might not be as well known in the U.S. as his Romanian New Wave compatriots Cristi Puiu, Cristian Mungiu, or Corneliu Porumboiu, but he’s been putting together a small, quietly devastating body of work, honing in on the lives of ordinary people and watching the fault lines appear under mounting stress. His new film, Întregalde, proceeds along this path as well, even threatening to turn into a thriller at points, but instead builds steadily to something altogether more oblique and mysterious. Following a group of volunteer aid workers in the Apuseni Mountains in Transylvania who deliver food and medical attention to poor villagers, Muntean’s camera gradually accumulates behavioral and narrative details that subtlety comment on a variety of dichotomies — rural and urban, wealth and poverty, man and woman — while simultaneously investigating the nature of altruism and how we treat the elderly and infirm. It’s a film about ethics, ultimately, although it goes about its business so subtly that one might not notice until its final scenes.
Întregalde begins with a flurry of activity, as several large groups of well-appointed weekend warriors pack bags full of goods, before setting off on winding roads to deliver their wares to the far reaches of the surrounding areas. Muntean quickly sketches in a variety of characters, as these people make small talk and fuss about who’s driving with whom and in which car. There’s a sense of what Muntean is up to when almost immediately one of the men crows about gifting a young child a new tablet device; he’s basking in unearned adulation, and when one of the women gently reminds him that he hasn’t volunteered in several years, and that the child would be grateful to anyone for such a gift, he quickly turns petulant and sarcastic. Indeed, Muntean, along with his regular co-writers Razvan Radulescu and Alexandru Baciu, has a gift for revealing people’s true natures with minimal exposition or fuss; instead, they allow things to emerge organically through actions and off-the-cuff snippets of dialogue. The story eventually settles on Maria (Maria Popistasu), Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu), and Dan (Alex Bogdan), who first visit an elderly woman who has an injured hand. Maria seems genuinely concerned for the woman’s welfare, while Dan complains about being hungover and Ilinca chatters on about her love life. En route to their next stop, the trio pick up an old man who’s wandering the muddy, unpaved back roads. He says his name is Kente (played by non-professional actor Luca Sabin, a resident of the real Întregalde village) and that he’s heading to a nearby sawmill. They agree to take him there, thinking it will be a shortcut back to the main road. But soon their SUV gets stuck in the mud, and the old man wanders off while the three of them struggle to get the vehicle moving.
Here, at roughly the halfway point, the film expands and diverges in fascinating ways. After the vehicle gets stuck a second time, Dan decides to walk to the sawmill himself, hoping to intercept Kente and get directions back to town. Maria and Ilinca stay behind, trying to reach the other cars via radio and cell phone. They seem more relaxed now that the moody Dan is gone, but when a Roma man and his adolescent son come across the scene and offer assistance, Maria and Ilinca let slip both racist and classist jokes. After an aborted towing attempt, the man and his son leave, but not before mentioning that Kente is senile, frequently wandering off to a dilapidated shack that used to be the sawmill. The men agree to take Ilinca there to find Dan, who has now been gone for some time, while Maria is left alone, still trying to reach someone on the phone. Ilinca eventually returns to the narrative, as does Dan, but now Maria is concerned that Kente will freeze to death overnight in the frigid mountain temperatures. There’s not much more to the plot than this, at which point the trio has to decide what to do about Kente; Dan has already had a run in with Kente at the old mill and discovered on his own the old man’s reduced mental capacity. He doesn’t care at all, declaring it too cold to go back, and (reasonably) wondering how they would physically force Kente to return to the car with them even if they found him. Maria stands firm, terrified by the idea of Kente dying. Ilinca is on the phone arguing with a boyfriend, oblivious to the parallel drama playing out just a few feet away from her.
Muntean unfolds all of this with a distinct novelistic sensibility; at any given moment, one of our three main characters is absent from the narrative, while other personalities flit in and out of the story. Eventually, the narrative pivots yet again, and Kente takes over, gradually becoming a main character himself. At times, there’s almost a slapstick quality to the proceedings, as Muntean stages multiple bits of action simultaneously — Dan frantically trying to keep Kente from leaving the car, while Ilinca fumes at being left behind by herself and Maria tries to keep Dan calm. It’s almost funny, in a bone-dry kind of way, until the four settle in for a long night with no hope of rescue until morning. Despite warnings of wolves and other dangers lurking in the dark, nothing particularly dramatic happens to our motley crew. The film ends quietly, now focused almost entirely on Kente, as he washes himself in the home of a village neighbor. Gone are the city folk with their largely useless technology — cars, radios, and phones failing to function properly is a recurring theme — leaving us instead with images of an old, forgotten community on the edges of civilization. There’s no didactic moral here, no suggestion that the old ways are better than the new, or even a condemnation of the volunteers. There’s no bad guys or good guys, just a sense that whatever the good intentions of our samaritans, it’s done little or nothing to help these villagers out of poverty. In one final irony, it’s these poor people who provide aid to Maria and Ilica (stubborn to the end, Dan stays behind to watch the car). Is Maria a good person for demanding they help Kente? And are Kente’s neighbors bad people for being fed up with taking care of him? It’s a tricky film, slow-paced and shifty as it continually tweaks and alters its narrative. Like the best stories, it lingers long after it’s over, revealing new facets as one mulls it over. There’s nothing glitzy or stylistically audacious on display, just the pleasures of a human-scaled story expertly told.
Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 6.