The landscape of Întregalde pierces you with a cold so persistent, you can’t help but shiver with the characters onscreen. Radu Muntean’s drama turns the question of what we owe to each other into a trap of wills, with the stubborn but gracious Maria (Maria Popistaşu) caught in the middle. Named after the remote village in the Apuseni mountains where the narrative unfolds, Întregalde follows a group of humanitarian aid volunteers delivering Christmas packages to impoverished Transylvanians when a wayfaring stranger (Luca Sabin)’s directions leave them stranded as fall. The bleak and suspenseful story almost weaponizes the very notion of helping your fellow man, punishing those whose deeds come not from true intentions of good but from the drive to feed their own egos.
When their Jeep gets caught in the mud on a forest road, Maria, Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu), and Dan (Alex Bogdan) must free it or find help before nightfall as they flicker in out of range of cell phone service. Maria chose this fate: She wanted to escape the bickering married couple she was delivering packages with and opted instead to help Ilinca and Dan retrieve mutton from a sheep farmer to bring to the villagers. Her intentions appear at times purer than those of her friends, who are too preoccupied with the uphill battles of their love lives to consider another’s predicament more deeply—Maria is the one, for example, who insists on trekking back into the damp forest to retrieve Kente, the troubled stranger who led them down this path of abandonment and who will otherwise freeze in the remnants of the sawmill overnight. Dan, who has grown angrier with the cold, at first rebuffs this, insisting instead that the old man should die for leading them astray with his delusions of the past, but the soon-to-be father ultimately can’t let Maria wander off in the dark alone.
The sociopolitical commentary of Întregalde is not subtle or surprising in modern Romanian cinema, but Muntean infuses the film with elements of horror that keep both character and viewer checking over their shoulders. Even as they joke about what to do if the other is killed by traveling men, the moments that Maria and Ilinca respectively spend alone in the car as the sky darkens are creeping with the terror of being found by the wrong person—or of not being found at all. There is a mundane horror to being alive in Întregalde, to complaining of hunger and cold when your night spent with both is temporary, to the pang of guilt that comes with criticizing others for imperfect actions when you know you would do the same. A knock on a freezing car window in the middle of nowhere is terrifying, but so is the realization that you might leave someone out in the cold if given the chance.
Muntean based the central plot on his own experiences delivering aid packages with screenwriters Alexandru Baciu and Răzvan Rădulescu, something that perhaps comforts the deliverer more than the receiver. This tension seeps into the film as the ensemble sifts through the wreckage of good deeds gone unfulfilled. We bristle when we learn than an elderly woman got the call about the stranded volunteers the night before but didn’t help them until morning; we almost laugh watching Ilinca and Maria drop off a package for an injured woman without helping her unpack it. Întregalde also asks if these individual choices have the power to affect real change in systems of inequity, or if the decisions of the characters are ultimately meaningless. The film is anchored by the captivating fury of Brezoianu’s performance and the cinematography of Tudor Vladimir Panduru, which uses flashlights and the interior lights of a car to shadow the faces of the lost wanderers.
On my way out of the theater, a downpour began, and I dashed into a diner to get out of the rain. I thought mostly, in that moment, of the people around me who couldn’t, and whether any intervention would be just a shout in the void of the city streets.
This review is from the New York Film Festival. Întregalde currently does not have U.S. distribution.