A lot gets lost in Radu Muntean’s fantastic “Intregalde.” Stuck in the mud as night falls in the thick of an increasingly sinister Romanian forest, people lose tempers, minds, control of their bowels, loyalties, ideals and maybe even a sense of themselves as decent, altruistic souls. But this uncannily gripping tragicomedy never loses your attention: Muntean, whose pedigree was established with 2010’s “Tuesday After Christmas,” but whose track record since has been more erratic than that of many of his Romanian New Wave peers, finds unexpectedly compelling new levels of scabrous humor and moving insight this time out. He is a filmmaker dynamically reborn amid the mulch and fallen leaves of the Transylvanian countryside, beside a stalled jeep that, like a Beckettian device, might be there but also might not.
In the back of the four-wheel-drive is Maria (Maria Popistasu, in her fourth collaboration with Muntean), who is riding with chatty, romantically frustrated Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu) and quick-tempered, car-proud Dan (Alex Bogdan). They are part of a convoy of urbanites who’ve come out into the hills to distribute care packages to the region’s needy. We’ve already seen them bustling around the distribution center, loading up the cars, discussing routes under the efficient eyes of team leader Radu (played by Muntean himself) and his partner Cristina (Carmen Lopăzan). There’s already been a quick debate about the the eternal question that hovers alongside acts of largesse (one local kid has received the gift of an iPad): Is it a good thing to give the deprived a sample of what they’ve been missing, or is it, in fact, a cruelty that only serves to make their lot more miserable?
In quick, clean dialogues that have the naturalistic feel of improvisation yet the pointedness of tight scripting (here courtesy of Muntean, Razvan Radulescu and Alexandru Baciu), the relationships within the group are set up with instant clarity. By the time Maria elects not to ride with Radu and Cristina but to go in Dan’s car, you feel like these people are long-standing acquaintances of yours, perhaps because their well-meaning condescension lands uncomfortably close to home. United for the moment by common purpose and a shared enjoyment of their own benevolence, this is a group of people who know each other well, but perhaps like each other less than they’ve ever been forced to find out.
But find out they are destined to do. On the way to the small town of Intregalde, Dan, Ilinca and Maria encounter an old man on the road, whom Maria, especially, insists they help. This is Kente (irreplaceable non-professional Luca Sabin, the film’s lightning rod) who persuades them to take a detour into the woods to give him a lift to a nearby sawmill. But then the car gets stuck, right where cell service is non-existent. Dan goes to get help, Ilinca manages to reverse the vehicle further into the ditch, and Kente reveals himself to be not only lacking in the gratitude the others maybe assume is their due, but a deeply irritating, perhaps senile presence who may have been leading them up the garden path. Darkness slowly falls.
The film can be quite talky, but every interaction between these mischievously well-drawn personalities contains its own perpetual motion machine of suspense and surprise. Tudor Panduru’s photography, too, is a small wonder: so often, we’re trapped in the car, and the claustrophobia of being in forced ongoing proximity to friends you are rapidly starting to hate is very much the vibe. And yet while the camerawork makes a point of that claustrophobia, in itself it never feels constrained. Instead, Panduru finds new, somehow roomy angles on the tightly bound action that always put us close enough to understand the physical awkwardness, yet far enough to be able to enjoy its absurdity. Even when, like people who have never watched a horror movie, the characters leave the car and go stumbling through the forest in various huffs on various missions, Panduru makes rich, fitfully lovely images out of darkness lit only by flashlights or phone screens.
Then, just when we might be congratulating ourselves on identifying the hypocrisy of these middle-class do-gooders, Muntean pulls his most audacious twist. Part of their unconscious bias is to see the less privileged, here especially the old, as things to be helped or as problems to be solved. And until now, to a certain extent, the film has too. As characterful as Kente is, he’s here mostly as a prompt for the revealing responses in the younger protagonists. But just for a moment late on, we glimpse Kente as he actually is: a lonely, fragile, sometimes terrified human, isolated 10 times over by age, geography, mental decline and physical frailty, and worthy of more than pity; worthy of recognition. Up to that moving, melancholic grace note, “Intregalde” has been a mordantly witty, keen-eyed, expertly performed delight. The ending just makes it beautiful too.