TIFF 2021: Întregalde Review

Is it human nature to assume the worst in our fellow man? Întregalde ponders the nature of human decency as three aid workers travel to the titular Romanian town. They encounter bumps along the way in a scenario that evokes mundane slice-of-life observations à la Seinfeld. Like Jerry, Elaine, Kramer, and George, Maria (Maria Popistașu), Dan (Alex Bogdan), and Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu) embody aspects of ourselves that we’d rather not acknowledge. Yet Întregalde cackles with the finest black humour one has come to expect in Romanian comedy. Writer/director Radu Muntean (One Floor Below) fills each frame with suspenseful dread as nervous laughs punctuate the tension. The unease that Întregalde inspires ultimately says more about the person watching it than the people inside its claustrophobic confines.

An act of goodwill precipitates a calamitous comedy of errors during what should be a routine assignment. Maria, Dan, and Ilinca are en route to Întregalde to deliver care packages. They banter about their squeaky-clean rental car and make plans for post-assignment fun. However, they brake for an old man stumbling in the middle of the road. The man, a motormouth named Kente (Luca Sabin), wants to hitch a ride. The trio is cautious, but as aid workers, they’re philanthropists at heart.

 

Beware the old nutter

Kente doesn’t shut up from the second he enters the car. As he babbles incessantly, the travellers lose their frame of reference. Sabin, a non-professional newcomer, is a hilariously exasperating presence. Kente’s non-stop and nonsensical prattle tests one’s goodwill. Kente suggests a detour that will take them near an old mill. It’s a windy dirt road and winter is setting in. They heed his advice anyway and embark down a windy, muddy, and treacherous road. Naturally, they get stuck.

Întregalde might take place in backwoods Romania, but Muntean makes one feel as if one is dropped straight into Texas Chainsaw Massacre territory. One assumes the worst when the travellers hop out of their car and try to pry it from the mud. The lingering camera observes their efforts in a pensive long take as Kente staggers away, gradually exiting the frame. He abandons the works just as easily as he entered their lives.

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As night begins to set, Maria, Dan, and Ilinca realize that they’re stranded until morning. Different plans divide the group, both literally and figuratively. One watches anxiously without knowing what dangers lurk in the woods, if any. The pensive cinematography by Tudor Panduru makes fine use of the limited viewpoints from the car, and the murky darkness of the forest. Shot most in long takes, Întregalde builds a mounting sense of dread as one fears the unseen.

 

The kindness of strangers?

With this deceptively simple premise, nothing and everything happens in Întregalde. The pensive waiting game invites dynamics of gender, class, race, and social structures as Romani villagers pass by the car. Their presence invites suspicion first and relief second as the air workers presume the passersby are likelier to cut them into pieces than offer them a lift. Muntean’s fine balancing act of suspense and comedic relief, however, invites a shrewd interrogation of the kindness of strangers and the veracity of philanthropy as the aid workers resort to increasingly performative acts of charity in hopes of emerging from the woods alive. This caustically funny film should inspire audiences to reconsider lending a hand to a stranger on the road—and to raise an eyebrow at the sight of those who do.

 

Întregalde screened at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

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