“Despite the simplicity of its narrative, To the North is a film that captivates from start to finish because Mincan knows exactly what he is doing, slowly tightening his grip on his audience.”
Algeciras, Spain, 1996. Two men, one Bulgarian and one Romanian, secretly board a transatlantic freighter heading for the New World. Their dreams of America are a string of cliches: cowboys, horses, the Big Apple. They hide in the maze of pathways between stacked containers. The next morning, at sea, the Bulgarian comes out of hiding to make himself known. The Filipino crew give him water, food, a smoke, but their anxious looks promise little good. Once their Taiwanese commanding officer shows up the reason for their furtive looks becomes clear: the stowaway is thrown overboard by the Taiwanese officers. This weighs heavily on the conscience of Joel, one of the Filipino sailors and a deeply religious man, so when the Romanian stowaway Dumitru runs into him, Joel hides him in the engine room, deep in the bowels of the ship. Then begins a game of cat and mouse between Joel and his fellow Filipinos, the Taiwanese officers, and Dumitru. As one by one his bystanders seem to give up on him, Joel finds himself submitted to what feels like a biblical test of God, trying to prevent the discovery of Dumitru.
For his feature debut To the North, Romanian director Mihai Mincan uses everything in his creative arsenal to turn his thrilling debut into a nail-biter. Mincan, previously known as a documentarian, skilfully employs the audiovisual possibilities of cinema to ratchet up the tension to 11. The relatively limited environment of the ship offers him plenty of opportunity to play with light and darkness, fitting the biblical undertones of the screenplay, which was written by Mincan as well. Shallow focus, hiding until the last moment a friend or a foe, and slow zooms add to the oppressive tone of the film. The soundscape by Benjamin Laurent, Nicolas Becker, and Cyril Holtz, dominated by the droning sound of the ship’s engine and moments of deafening silence, further builds the heightened atmosphere, as does Marius Leftarache’s piercing score. Cinematographer George Chiper-Lillemark, best known for his distinctive work in last year’s Leone del futuro winner Immaculate, frames the shots to perfection, and uses the sharp lines drawn by the labyrinth of cargo containers to suggest a foe around every corner. This all combines into a tense thriller that perhaps is drawn out a bit too much, but builds up carefully to its Western-like climax.
The trio of performances at the heart of the film are tuned to perfection, with the tense exchanges between Soliman Cruz’s Joel and Alexandre Nguyen as his commanding officer standing out, Nguyen quietly menacing Cruz with words and suggestions to bring his subordinate to breaking point. Nikolai Becker’s arc as the slowly-going-mad stowaway Dumitru is mostly performed in silence and solitude, but his acting gets to shine late in the film as Dumitru breaks.
Despite the simplicity of its narrative, To the North is a film that captivates from start to finish because Mincan knows exactly what he is doing, slowly tightening his grip on his audience by placing its sympathy fully with Joel and then closing the net around this Good Samaritan. When the viewer can finally exhale in the film’s violent climax, many a nail will have been shortened. A taut thriller, To the North is an excellent calling card for the Romanian director, and leaves us wanting more.