“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” – Matthew 24:40.
It says a lot about a person or a community how they treat others, not just in the broad light of day, but in the quiet moments shrouded from public view. To live a life of integrity means to make the same decision no matter the circumstance. So if you proclaim yourself a kind person, a generous person, then it doesn’t matter who it is that needs help, you just help. It’s here that director/co-writer Radu Muntean’s Întregalde finds its central conflict, exploring the lengths a humanitarian will go in order to do what they think is right. Întregalde has already screened at Cannes 2021, as well as at other festivals, but the Grasshopper Films release was selected to take part in the 65th SFFILM Festival, as well. Using a primarily minimalist approach — ambient sounds as the score, few central characters, and frequent long takes — Întregalde seeks to imbed the audience with the interpersonal conflict which drives the film. The issue is that, despite a clear desire to convey a sense of caring, of humanity, there’s no tension present to push the point through.
Ahead of the Christmas holiday, a group of government-sanctioned humanitarians from Bucharest travel through Transylvania delivering sacks of food, gifts, and other necessities. In between stops, Maria (Maria Popistasu), Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu), and Dan (Alex Bogdan) come across a confused and lost old man, Kente Aron (Luca Sabin). In trying to help him, their car gets stuck in mud in an area near Întregalde and requires more tools than they have to free it. Off the beaten path with little to no cell service and freezing winter weather on the way, the three do whatever they can to keep themselves safe. A task made more difficult as night falls.
The script by Muntean, Razvan Radulescu (Alice T.), and Alexandru Baciu (Alice T.) is tight and clean in concept and execution. It opens with the humanitarians finalizing the sacks, packing up, and sending the convoy out. There’s a great sense that these are people who know each other fairly well, quickly establishing that these are not strangers on their first expedition but veterans. The way in which the conversations flow as the convoy prepares to head out not only introduces us to Popistasu’s Maria as the central character of the film, but instills a sense that while the film is starting here, the journey these people are on is not. This creates a lived-in feel for the film, almost documentary-esque, as Întregalde skips traditional exposition in favor of natural conversation and exchanges. Credit to the screenwriters, Întregalde never feels false for a moment, finding ways to imply tension by utilizing tropes from horror films without going into dramatics or pulling out sudden twists. This helps the narrative maintain a humanistic perspective from start to finish.
Building upon the script, the use of natural sounds with some beautiful cinematography from Tudor Vladimir Panduru (Between Two Dawns) ensures that the audience is able to take in the situation with as little external manipulation as possible. There’s no score to imply how we should feel about any given moment nor to give a hint at any specific danger. Without these auditory cues, it’s up to the audience to read the scenes and interpret a meaning. The cinematography enhances this by capturing the events without intensification. The little we see of Întregalde in wide shots is lovely, even in winter: the sky a lovely blue, the sun warmly spreading its light across the countryside. It’s not until the group runs into trouble with the car that the environment becomes noticeably different: the wide open road traded for the off-beaten path, narrow in size and covered in mud. Here, there’s no additional enhancement either, it just feels darker and more treacherous because it’s harder for the light to get through the trees. Again, it’s all minimalist in execution, creating a wonderful sense of unease through circumstance rather than what’s actually happening.
This is, of course, where things falter for Întregalde. The entire film is an exploration of how we treat others. As things become more difficult for Maria, Ilinca, and Dan, their frustrations and their fears come out. What they value and how they go about securing those things become the goals and the way in which we, the audience, read the scene will determine how much tension goes into everything that happens after the group picks up Kente. What does it mean that Dan doesn’t want to pick-up the stranger? What does it mean when he goes alone to look for the stranger? How do we feel about the father-son duo that appear out of nowhere (the father drunk) and offer help? How do we feel when Maria is left on her own for a time? Would we feel differently if it were another character and why? These and many others are questions that Întregalde seems to want us to ask and, because of this, it runs the risk of being in possession of no tension at all. In my case, I found not an ounce of tension in any interaction as the body language of each performer implied not an ounce of malice. Perhaps it’s that I didn’t watch a lot of horror films until the last few years, but I got no The Hills Have Eyes-vibes from any single interaction or display. In fact, because of this, I often wondered what the point of the film is, especially in light of the ending which is as abrupt as the opening.
I applaud the persistent goodness of Maria and the way the script consistently used her integrity to manufacture reasonable challenges for the characters to overcome. Doing so pushes forward the idea of humanitarianism as something one does because it’s the right thing to do versus the thing you do because you think it’s right. Especially as the three condemn the mayor (the unseen governmental figure managing them from a distance) as their frustrations grow and the weather continues to turn frightful, there becomes a growing sense that there is disdain in them for those who seek political office for personal gain while others do the work they can take credit for. This is what sets apart those who help because they should versus those who help because of what they can be given. The difference is small, yet Maria never breaks and, because of this, Întregalde constantly finds new potential challenges. Nice as that might be, none of the challenges rise to the levels of what one might describe as horror due to the fact that there’s little unsettling about what the three experience. A “drama”? Absolutely, but nothing horrific — either by design or by reception.
As an idea, I find Întregalde intriguing. Using humanitarians having a bad day in an unknown place possesses quite a bit of natural fodder. How does one react in such a situation? Personally, I could imagine Dan’s growing frustration which Bogdan expresses quite organically as I, too, find myself troubled when easy plans go astray, rippling into one inconvenience after another. I can also imagine Ilinca’s terror, perfectly conveyed by Brezoianu, upon discovering she’s been left alone for a period as I, due to a miscommunication, was left stranded in a foreign space. I can also appreciate Maria’s consistency, which Popistasu communicates in verbal and physical delivery, as the struggle to act upon one’s word so as to maintain internal equilibrium is trying. It’s just that at no point in Întregalde did the film seem to bequeath a specific vision or idea about what the film wants to say. Audiences are offered a quite realistic view of Transylvanian life, but it doesn’t mesh with any of the unease Muntean may want to insert. In this way, while interesting as a catalyst for philosophical discussion of what we owe one another, Întregalde fails to be any more than a naturalist drama capturing a difficult 24-hourish period.
Screened during the 2022 SFFILM Festival.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.