Romanian director Radu Muntean has become somewhat of a staple in the sidebars of the Cannes Film Festival, and six years after One Floor Below he returns to the Croisette (in Quinzaine this time) with Întregalde. The film is a social commentary on the urban-rural divide in Romania and on Romania’s governing bodies’ lack of interest in the hinterland, slyly laced with enough horror tropes to keep the audience on their toes, lest this turns into The Carpathians Have Eyes at the next muddy fork in the road.
A clear blue sky, and soft golden morning sunshine lights the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, as a caravan of heavy-duty four-wheel drives serpents its way towards the backwaters of Central Romania. A Bucharest NGO setting out to deliver food supplies to remote villages before the harsh winter sets in. Among them are Dan (Alex Bogdan), Cristina (Carmen Lopazan), and Maria (Maria Popistasu), cheerfully bantering as they make their way through the mountains towards their final stop for the night at Întregalde. A crooked old man appears on the side of the road, asking for a lift to a nearby sawmill. Polite interest and almost open disdain whirl around the interior of the car, but in the end the trio caves. His name is Kente, he tells them, and he directs them into a muddy side road, where inevitably they get stuck. No cellular signal, no radio signal, and no idea where they are. Now what? Dan sets off on his own to see if he can pick up a signal elsewhere to call for help, leaving the two women to the mercy of a father and son who happen to pass by in their own car. As darkness sets in, paranoia takes hold of the city slickers who started the day so full of joy and confidence.
If this reads like the start of a B-list horror movie set in the foggy woods carpeting the Carpathians, that was entirely Muntean’s intention. Spoiler alert: it’s not, although for the longest time you expect the axe to drop at any given moment. This keeps tension in Întregalde high, but it also gives the helmer the chance to slowly wipe the confidence from the faces of the three central characters as they transform from upbeat idealists wanting to do good into selfish, prejudiced cravens with a streak of homophobia. Muntean shows the thin veneer we call civilization coming off, though truth be told with our three protagonists it starts to peel even before the real trouble begins. Perhaps it’s not the most original idea to play with in film, but the way Muntean masterfully incorporates genre conventions turns Întregalde into a compelling and fun watch, not in the least because the locals we encounter are all uncomplicated folk, oblivious to how they are observed by the people they are trying to help.
Întregalde not only shows the differences in people’s mentalities when comparing the urban to the rural, but also the differences in their living conditions. It’s not an explicit criticism of the lack of attention by the authorities who leave aid for these remote areas to NGOs, but the message is buried underneath the mud of the roads that are in a dire state, and in the cracked walls of the houses people have to live in. The protagonists all wear brand-name jackets, while Kente wears layers of clothes that were fashionable when Ceaușescu was still in power. Poverty is the norm in these areas, while the people who come to deliver them humanitarian aid discuss buying apartments abroad. This divide is not unique to Romania, but it is starker than elsewhere in Europe, and Întregalde lays it bare. So for all its playing around with genre tropes, deep down Muntean’s film is a deeply felt social commentary that pokes a finger into the nerves of a country that fails its citizens.