Ah, sweet Romania: land of weatherbeaten fences and faces, of bureaucratic gridlock and governmental corruption. In the films collected under the informal umbrella of its New Wave, the country comes off looking malnourished and developmentally stunted, its broken state infrastructure and widespread reactionary attitudes making even the simplest task into a drawn-out, pessimistically absurd ordeal with shades of Franz Kafka.
In the case of the latest film from Radu Muntean – a key New Waver, though he lacks the name recognition and awards hardware of his compatriots Cristian Mungiu, Cristi Puiu and Corneliu Porumboiu – the objective at hand is a short yet treacherous drive through the muddiest tracts of rural Transylvania. A group of humanitarian workers have loaded up on sacks of provisions and set a course for a remote village that could really use the aid, but they’ll soon find that affecting positive change doesn’t come easy in a region where even the ground beneath your feet conspires against you.
The age demographics provide the first hint at an allegorical subtext, the volunteers all in a thirtysomething bracket making them de facto representatives of the modern Romania. On their way through the network of unpaved dirt paths, they encounter a relic of the older generation, a shrivelled-up man named Kente (Luca Sabin) hoping for a ride to a nearby mill. They pick him up and venture into a foreboding forest, where their tires lose traction and aggravation mounts as quickly as night falls.
In essence, the stranded car is an immovable object suggesting today’s wayward Romania, stagnating in its effort to build and improve by a populace at odds with itself. Though their motives may not be purest altruism, Maria (Maria Popistașu) and Dan (Alex Bogdan) want to bring welfare programs to isolated communes like the one supplying the title, suffering in their seclusion. Census information indicates that the age of the average Întregalde resident is around 60, explaining the precipitous decrease in their numbers over the past few decades. One village within the subdivision has but a single inhabitant.
Kente’s fixation on the mill gestures to a signifier of national industry long since rusted out, a read affirmed once everyone gets there only to find it abandoned. Muntean plays this scene in a gently mournful tone, never scornful of the senile wanderer distressed to watch the world he knows disappearing. He and his peers have grown unable to care for themselves, and as the tender sponge bath he’s given near the close of the film makes clear, it’s our responsibility to look after our elders.
But the younger element hardly provides a moral exemplar, starting from Dan’s constant denigration of Kente’s homosexuality. (As evident in the work of Muntean’s countryman Radu Jude, a strong undercurrent of social conservatism is alive and well in the area.) When a pair of Romani travellers pass by and offer their assistance, the racism still festering against this marginalised ethnic group doesn’t take long to jump out. For all their ideas about progress, the adults soon to dictate the direction of Romania remain stuck in the past on some crucial matters.
In a film with more going on beneath the surface than in terms of concrete action, the end product can sometimes be less stimulating to watch than to think about. Though his leisurely pacing may require some getting used to, Muntean largely avoids this with liberal dollops of dry humour, from the inherent slapstick of dislodging a stalled vehicle to Kente’s proclivity for non sequiturs.
The occasional mood-lightener helps along a film pitched from a dreary sociological vantage, its prevailing assertion being that internecine conflicts will leave Romania spinning its wheels. The forgiving final moments clarify that Muntean’s not totally without hope, but as dynamics currently stand, everyone’s lost.
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