Cannes 2024 review: Three Kilometres to the End of the World (Emanuel Pârvu)

“A lackluster entry into the genre and a film that will likely be forgotten once life on the Croisette returns to normal.”

Roughly a quarter century into the Romanian New Wave the names have changed (somewhat), but not so the themes. Corruption, bigotry, prejudice, and religious superstition are all still the staple of this genre of realist, minimalist cinema, so it is no surprise to find these represented in Emanuel Pârvu’s Three Kilometres to the End of the World, a drama centered around a violent incident that threatens to tear apart the fabric of a small village on the banks of the Danube. Pârvu exposes the narrow-mindedness of the townsfolk in the wake of this incident, and it’s the dynamic between characters that is the draw, as the resolution of the incident is fairly predictable. It’s all about the journey in this small drama that is impeccably filmed but feels like we have seen it all before, and is lacking in the depth of its examination of human behavior.

When Adi (Ciprian Chiujdea) returns home late, his father (Bogdan Dumitrache) is understandably worried. That worry proves substantiated when he confronts the boy and finds his son with a swollen face and bruised body. Wanting to get to the bottom of the attack, he turns to the local police chief (Valeriu Andriuta). There are witnesses, though reluctant to talk and unwilling to put a statement to paper, and suspicion soon falls on the sons of the local bigwig. This makes the investigation a delicate one, with both police and the father of the perpetrators wanting to sweep things under the rug. Once the motive becomes clear, the scales weigh in the direction of those wanting the whole incident to go away; it turns out Adi was seen kissing a male tourist, an absolute faux pas in the ignorant Romanian backwaters. While his parents call on a local priest to perform a forced exorcism, the police are trying to fend off a child services inspector sent to investigate the case.

When Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N. premiered in Competition in 2022 there was some criticism that the immigrant drama, set in a similarly prejudiced town, focused on everything but the immigrants at the heart of the community’s conflicts. Already Pârvu’s film is getting some of the same accusations leveled against it. Unfairly so, as Adi’s side of the story – a young, gay man who wants to escape the suffocating small-town life to find a more liberated life in the capital – could be an interesting one but is not the subject of the film. The homophobic attack is the catalyst, a jumping-off point for Pârvu to examine the dynamics of the town’s bigotry. Adi could have just as well been an immigrant, an atheist, or anything else that falls outside the norm in the Romanian countryside.

The problem is that Pârvu may deftly orchestrate the dynamics between the family, the church, the law, and the local bourgeoisie, but only scratches the surface of what makes all of the players, including Adi’s parents, so willing to victimize Adi several times over, with fellow teenager Ilinca the only one standing by the boy. The characters thus threaten to fall into caricature, and not a poignant examination of the underlying motives for their widespread homophobia. At the end of Three Kilometres we know what they are, but are still completely in the dark as to the why. Pârvu proves himself a good storyteller, but his film fails to elucidate the moral conflict inside its characters’ minds.

Pârvu fares better in his visual language. Employing the wide format to its fullest, his mise-en-scène effectively builds tension and shifts perspectives and power in the series of conversations between all involved. The windswept riverside soundscape heightens the idea of a wasteland, both moral and literal, a town that is indeed far removed from modernity and frozen in time when it comes to progress. Despite the wide frame, Pârvu captures Adi’s suffocation by filming mostly in mid-length shots, depriving the characters, Adi most of all, of a certain amount of freedom in that frame. That is Pârvu’s way to paint Adi’s inner world and his part in the story, as a shadow hanging over the proceedings. Such subtleties cannot save the film from its procedural roots though, and in the end Three Kilometres to the End of the World is a lackluster entry into the genre and a film that will likely be forgotten once life on the Croisette returns to normal.

(c) Image copyright: Vlad Dumitrescu