A Romanian satire charts what happens when some humanitarian aid workers set out to save others (and need to be saved themselves).
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Beware of laughing when watching “Intregalde” because your laughs will have a way of catching — and dying — in your throat. A sly, mordantly funny, at times brutal satire about altruism and its discontents, the movie offers something of an emotional workout. One minute you’re grooving on the story and the nice, warm feeling you get from watching Romanian charity workers dole out food and treats for Christmas. The next you’re squirming as they lose their bearings and their good intentions go ridiculously awry.
At the heart of “Intregalde” is the tension between individual and community, and the age-old tug between self-interest and caring for others. What do we owe others? What do we owe ourselves? The movie doesn’t offer any obvious answers; it’s more interested in stirring the pot. But it still provokes the kind of searching questions that aren’t always asked outside of lecture halls, places of worship or newspaper columns. Yet, if you’re like me, I imagine that these are some of the very questions that — when you’re not hurriedly running on your gerbil wheels — haunt you, troubling your thoughts and sleep.
The story takes place in a rural part of Romania that gives the movie its title, a sparsely populated area with beautiful hills, wide valleys, unpaved roads and a spooky loneliness. There, a group of boisterous volunteers from Bucharest has gathered to pass out donations to locals. The volunteers seem pumped with energy as they fill large plastic bags with cheese, cans of salmon and other offerings. The vibe is upbeat, almost giddy. The director Radu Muntean (he also co-wrote the script) plunges you right into the makeshift storehouse where the donations are hurriedly being gathered in an excited churn.
As the camera energetically moves around the space, it at once catches the amped mood (as if it too were a volunteer) and discreetly nudges your attention toward individual people. Once they’ve loaded up, the volunteers clamber into muddied S.U.V.s, forming a humanitarian convoy to make the world a better place. You’re riding too, the camera having hitched along with some of these folks. They all look happy and seem smart and agreeable. But as they continue, drive on and off the road, admire the scenery, change cars and buy a sheep for a barbecue, they also come into lacerating focus.
You settle in quickly with these characters, their smiles and the S.U.V.s’ tight spaces creating a kind of conspiratorial bond with them. The naturalistic dialogue is light on exposition, so you learn little about their backgrounds. Instead, they emerge through how they act and talk, most instructively with the locals. “It makes a difference to these people,” a charity worker says a bit too smugly after an early visit to a family. The visit goes fine, but the volunteers are overly familiar, and when they take a group photo with the recipients of their largess, I thought of how hunters pose with their prey.
It gets worse, at times with painfully comic results, when the three workers you’re riding with drive deeper into the countryside. The light has begun to fade and the trees lining the road obscure the sky, darkening the scene and shifting the texture of the realism. The woman in the back, Maria (Maria Popistasu), asks her companions if they came this far last time. No, says Dan (Alex Bogdan), who’s riding shotgun. He owns the S.U.V., but Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu) is driving. Then they see a small figure in the middle of the road. “Move it, Forrest Gump!” Dan jokes. “Mind you don’t hit him!” Maria yelps.
The figure turns out to be Kente (Luca Sabin), a weathered old man with sunken cheekbones and a hawkish profile. Shabbily dressed in clothes that look inadequate for the fast-approaching night, he greets the aid workers, inaugurating an amusingly absurd, confusing conversation. Kente babbles on about a mill; the workers struggle to understand what he’s on about even as they try to explain what they’re doing. Everyone talks at cross purposes, fraying nerves. But when Kente asks for a lift, the workers agree, a decision that instigates a cascade of misadventures and sets the movie’s ethical course.
Like Forrest Gump, Kente is an enigma, though considerably less cutesy. He seems addled and hapless, and may be cognitively challenged, but he’s also mulish, incoherent, exasperating and cunning. Is he a holy fool, a trickster or just a lost soul in need of saving? Whatever else he is, he becomes a wedge that rapidly changes the dynamic among the workers and frays their solidarity. Maria, Dan and Ilinca have opinions about Kente and what they should do with him, and nearly every one of their ideas is bad.
The first time I watched “Intregalde,” I recognized in the workers the desire, however naïve or ill-conceived, to play savior. Yet while the movie can be read as a skewering of bourgeois do-goodism, Muntean doesn’t punish his characters and he doesn’t slap his viewers around for their complicity in the horror show we call the world. Watching it again recently, I now saw a movie that, with humor, tenderness and flashes of filmmaking brilliance, looks at what happens when kindness is tested, masks are dropped and self-interest runs free. It’s all a mess and so are we, which I think is very much to Muntean’s point.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In Romanian, with subtitles. In theaters.