Three volunteer workers set out from Bucharest in a convoy destined for the mountainous hinterlands of Romania, where they plan to distribute aid supplies to remote villages. But when their SUV breaks down after they decide to help a lonely old man on a desolate mountain road, their notions of empathy and charity get put to the test. What begins as a kind of survival thriller takes a detour into the realm of social satire, as the do-gooders’ good intentions are put under the microscope.
“Întregalde,” which recently premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival, is the seventh feature film from Romanian New Wave veteran Radu Muntean (“Tuesday, After Christmas”). Produced by Dragos Vilcu of Bucharest-based Multimedia Est, it stars Maria Popistașu, Ilona Brezoianu, and Alex Bogdan as a trio of volunteer workers struggling to see the forest for the trees.
This week “Întregalde” screens during the Transilvania Intl. Film Festival, which runs July 23 – Aug. 1. Muntean spoke to Variety ahead of the film’s Romanian premiere to discuss the limits of charity, the selfish motives lurking behind good deeds, and why he wants to upend his audience’s expectations when they go to the cinema.
What was the starting point for “Întregalde”?
It had a really difficult birth. I started to think about it 10 years ago, when I first heard about these humanitarian expeditions of off-road 4×4 adventure clubs. They normally have this once-a-year expedition in remote areas – they try to play Santa Claus in a way to help the local people with food, some stuff for the winter. It’s not much, but at least they have the feeling that someone is thinking of them. I went with my two co-writers on two expeditions – one in 2012, and the other in 2016 – and we had a better understanding of this small phenomenon. For me, it was interesting to question the motives of these actions, the generosity – how much of this is about you, the one who performed these acts, and how much does it really help the local people?
It’s a question that hangs over the whole movie. When we do see this village later on in the film, we see that the community is somehow self-sufficient – that they do have needs, but they also manage to take care of themselves and look after each other. It’s very different from the almost patronizing attitude of these do-gooders from the city.
If we are going to start the debate, I can easily be the defense lawyer of each character. They all have their own angles. [The movie is looking at] the two different ways of thinking about generosity or altruism. I’m not even sure that you can call it altruism. Out there in these remote places, where life is really tough, and the nature is somehow dictating everything in their lives, it’s about survival. Helping one another is about survival. They’re tough conditions, and you have to take care of the people next to you. It’s not about showing off to other people, or about padding your self-esteem. It’s really about survival.
Your last few films focused on largely middle-class, urban lives – in fact, the sort of lives the volunteers Maria, Dan and Ilinca probably lead back in Bucharest. What made you want to leave that world as a filmmaker and explore a very different Romanian reality?
I try to put characters in uncomfortable positions, in different situations than they’re used to, in order to test them. Testing them is like testing me. I’m curious to find out about these kinds of experiences, and about how I would act in life-threatening circumstances. I think it’s important, when you’re talking about this notion of generosity, to think more about knowing the beneficiary – knowing the conditions they’re living in. These days, in society, in media and in social media, we’re talking a lot about charity and this altruistic aspect of normal life. But I think it’s important to go a little bit deeper, to question yourself about your motives, whether or not it’s part of your own personal project. And at the same time, to try to understand what you’re doing, and to understand if it’s relevant or not for the beneficiaries. It’s also about putting myself in a difficult position, in a position of trying to understand how these people are living.
Was a lot of research involved?
I stayed for two months in that area. I went for a lot of location scouting. I really tried to understand the basis of things in that remote area. I think things are a bit more fundamental there. Time is passing in a different way. People are understanding these notions of altruism [differently] and helping one another for survival.
It was while you were location scouting that you discovered the non-professional actor Luca Sabin, who steals every scene he’s in. How did you find and cast him?
I met him when we were in our first location scouting in that area. We didn’t shoot in Întregalde; we shot in the village next to it. We were location scouting in this small village, and I saw Luca Sabin with the other two villagers on a small, unpaved road. He was going to the church to cut the grass in the churchyard. When I saw him and spoke with him, I instantly saw that he was the right person. He looked exactly, he talked exactly like the character. And he really wanted this experience from the start. Some of the locals said, “No, I understand, but I have my own problems with the cows and all these animals in the yard, and I don’t want to get involved with this.” But he was really happy to be part of the project. I was a little bit crazy, because I risked a lot when I had this idea to use a local guy – not an actor – to play this part. But I really wanted this authenticity that I think only a guy from that area can bring.
Large stretches of the movie feel like a set-up for the sort of movie we’ve seen before: three people lost in the woods as darkness falls. Did you purposely want to play with these sorts of genre conventions and expectations?
This was not my main purpose. But it’s a way of playing with people’s preconceptions and viewers’ preconceptions about movies, almost like the characters in the movie have their own preconceptions about the locals’ lives. It was part of the plan, but it was not my main goal. My main goal was to put the characters in this difficult situation where being altruistic is tested – when your life is threatened, and you have no reference point and everything is changing around you. You have to think twice when you decide to be generous.