Into the Woods
By Ela Bittencourt

NYFF 2021:
Intregalde
Dir. Radu Muntean, Romania, no distributor

Anyone who’s ever been lost in the mountains, ankle-deep in mud, with bitter cold and night rapidly closing in, will immediately identify with the premise of Radu Muntean’s wickedly clever seventh feature, Intregalde. However, one need not have had any arduous alpine experience to appreciate the film’s entertaining plot or Muntean’s richly layered storytelling.

Muntean, who cowrote the screenplay with Alexandru Baciu and Razvan Radulescu, uses the Intregalde, a rugged, hardscrabble region in Romania, to make poignant points about the pitfalls of charity, putting to test the very term “humanitarian.” More precisely, Muntean depicts well-meaning urban folk who aim to help the country’s rural areas but end up needing rescuing themselves. Muntean’s story is then a social parable disguised as an adventure movie, with undertones of folkish horror. This aspect is further brought out by much of the film’s midsection having been shot in either dense fog or pitch-darkness, with lush shadows and mysterious, creaking sounds creating a frightful atmosphere. Ultimately, the only monsters are the ones lurking inside the human mind. Meanwhile, the mountains’ harsh climate and menacing aura also act as social equalizers. They strip down status, money, and class to the most basic, elementary survival.

Intregalde isn’t as solemn or humorless as this description might suggest. To sum up its basic narrative: a large party heads out from a mountain base bringing Christmas gifts and provisions to Intregalde’s villagers. But as the convoy splits up, one car gets stuck in the freezing mud on a secluded mountain road. The cars’ passengers must battle the bitter cold and their dwindling morale while also trying to get help. Their utter reliance on cellphones to get their bearings and to communicate leaves them further stranded, as there’s no radio signal in the vicinity—perhaps the starkest proof of just how much urbanites are prone to overestimate their self-reliance and tactical skills. Muntean sets up a sharp contrast between the opening sequence, in which the adventure seekers buzz about with efficient glee while preparing for their trip, and the later frictions that emerge within the group due to each traveler’s vulnerabilities. Their upbeat, breezy attitudes may end up pummeled to smithereens, but their fallibility, and even smallness, also make them relatably human.

The film closely follows three of these hapless folk, who ride together in a 4x4. Chief among the group is Maria (Maria Popiștasu), who at first travels with a couple that she describes as “the Grumpy Old Men from the Muppets”— cast as the husband is, hilariously, Muntean himself, who spent two months immersed in humanitarian adventure tours as part of his research for the film. To further flesh out the icky oddness of combining charity with adventure tourism, Muntean’s cameo character romanticizes his own role. The man’s wife sarcastically sums up his fancy notion that he’s a Santa Claus to a local little girl: “You made her happy one time. Then let her down for five years in a row by not showing up.”

After Maria opts to ride with her friends, Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu) and Dan (Alex Bogdan), things seem to take a more relaxing turn. But tensions arise in this new group as well. Most critically, after the three friends pick up a mysterious elderly man, Anton Kente (Luca Sabin), who has been inexplicably wandering the remote area, he convinces them to veer off course, and take him to the nearby sawmill where he says he’s expected—utterly unlikely, as it turns out. Ilinca’s desire to prove her chops as a driver on a particularly treacherous stretch, after Dan challenges her (“If you’re nervous, I can drive”), leads to the car getting stuck in the mud—and then getting stuck, again, this time with Dan in the driver’s seat.

Some of the subsequent passages are wistful: the two female friends kill time by reflecting on being single while Dan goes off to seek help. Some are disconcerting, such as when Maria and Ilinca suspect the Roma father and son offering help of harboring dark intents. Muntean proves brilliant at dropping dark hints and establishing a vague atmosphere of menace, keeping the audience guessing as to the strangers’ true intents, while also revealing how easily the adventurers’ good will can crumble amidst mistrust, fear, and prejudice. Still other moments are earnestly scary. In one, Ilinca panics when, while finally on the phone, she doesn’t hear Dan and Maria warn her that they’re wandering off.

With Kente onboard, the movie goes off on series of Kafkaesque tangents as this unstoppable, endlessly charismatic mountain dweller woos the trio with his spicy stories of local lore, outtalks them, and encourages them to veer off course, then runs away from them, and proves to be their ultimate rescuer. Like a forest goblin, this frail but lively character is everywhere at once. Kente's many surprises could have sent the film spinning off course, but Sabin’s authenticity as a non-professional actor keeps the story grounded.

Kente, or “Pops,” as the aid workers call him, is in many ways the movie’s emotional anchor, and his presence risks dimming everyone else whenever he's onscreen. Whereas the chatty humanitarians are easy enough to satirize—though Muntean avoids condescension—the elderly pilgrim is all but impossible to pin down. It’s true that, by the film’s end, despite climactic revelations about his state of mind, his attachment to the mill has profound personal roots, and reveals his all too real grief for someone very dear to him. The overwhelming, time-bending power of Kente’s love puts to shame the more feckless and fragile sentiments of the urban group.

Furthermore, it is through Kente that Muntean shows the full gravity of charitable deeds. Unlike the humanitarian workers, Kente’s elderly female neighbor, brusque and perpetually addressing the confused man with exasperation, also looks after all his daily needs. Toward the film’s end, she bathes Kente in a scene that’s graphic, humane, and heartbreaking all at once. So is the image of the despairing Kente locked up in his house, to prevent him from wandering and freezing to death—by comparison, it makes the volunteers’ efforts to deliver candy and toys seem like child’s play. It’s wondrous that Muntean reaches this potent finale without succumbing to preachy dialogue or weighty lectures. Instead, he's a master at narrative subterfuge. After carefully building up the dread, with dark omens and haunting premonitions, Muntean evaporates his urbanites' vaporous boogeymen by daylight, giving way to humility and respect.