‘Întregalde’ Film Review: Bitter Romanian Comedy Strands Do-Gooders in a Moral Wilderness

The latest from Radu Muntean (“Tuesday, After Christmas”) fuses horror tropes to low-key social realism

Tudor Panduru/Grasshopper

A humanitarian aid distribution center, a mild chaos of activity and people, all of them gathering up bags of food and supplies, loading them into SUVs, and heading off down mountain roads. It’s a public-facing show of altruism that gets laid down flat in Romanian filmmaker Radu Muntean’s latest, “Întregalde,” an incisive, mirthlessly amusing satire about the social contours of charity.

The camera briefly settles on Bucharest aid workers Cristina (Carmen Lopazan) and Radu (a quick cameo from director Muntean), and just as quickly abandons them after a scene-setting conversation about grateful aid recipients and the moral quicksand of loving one’s own virtuousness.

The story then follows three volunteers who split off from the other two: easily irritated Dan (Alex Bogdan, “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn”), pragmatic Ilinca (Ilona Brezoianu, “Sieranevada”) and earnest Maria (Maria Popistasu, “Tuesday, After Christmas”). Once inside Dan’s Land Rover, they’re free to gossip about Radu and Cristina and the vacation home they’re buying.

The three are headed for Întregalde, a small village in central Romania, tucked away into foothills, avatar for a Romania left behind in the post-Ceaușescu era. They travel down unpaved, muddy roads, encountering a disoriented elderly man named Kente (first-time actor Luca Sabin) who asks for a ride to a local sawmill, a place located, he says, at the end of an even muddier track through the forest.

And soon they’re stuck in that mud. Viewers familiar with “Deliverance” or the “Wrong Turn” horror franchise will find their stomachs knotting in anticipation as Kente wanders off into the woods and a Roma man and his son arrive, bickering over whether to assist the group. The vehicle is moved and almost as quickly sunk into deeper mud. The trio splits up to find help. Communication breaks down. Phone signals fail. The sun sets, and with it comes winter snow, a deep freeze, bad decisions, and noises in the night.

The bright, wide open vistas of rural Transylvania shrink with each passing sequence. The forest encroaches on the vehicle and its inhabitants. Roads narrow, and light is lost. Muntean (“Tuesday, After Christmas”) tightens a vise of darkness around the story, one that finds a substantial amount of its second half shot in near-complete blackness as the characters stumble through the woods toward who-knows-what. By employing familiar horror tropes and cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s (“Graduation”) ever-dimishing visual field, Muntean playfully builds slasher-movie tension, though it’s a genre he has no interest in exploring.

The satisfaction of a good scare isn’t forthcoming and is beside the point. He wants to leave his characters hanging and the audience asking them why they’re so relentlessly determined to fail at being thoughtful human beings.

What they are determined to do is make their own decisions, regardless of outcomes. Their volunteer credentials amount to a short laundry list of shapeless motives, smug class condescension (they ignore more than one piece of practical advice from the recipients of their largesse), racist and homophobic attitudes their urban sophistication would seem to bely, and, at an aid level, a lack of interest in the fact that their provisions for the poor amount to bags of Cheetos-style snack foods.

No loud-volume slap in the face of annoying, myopic do-gooders, “Întregalde,” is a satisfying and prickly low-key hum of discontent and moral exploration, one that knows there’s no fixing self-importance, there’s no teaching people who emerge from an episode of inconvenience no wiser than they were before, and no easy way to explain the frequent uselessness of trickle-down charity, even as it brusquely bumps into the reality of mutual aid among the poor. In Muntean’s exhausted landscape, the world won’t listen even when it’s stuck in frozen mud.

“Intregalde” opens Friday in NYC and in Los Angeles on March 25.