“To the North” and “Ordinary Failures”. Two Romanian films in Venice

5 September, 2022

“To the North” (2022), the fiction feature debut of Mihai Mincan, had its world premiere in the Orizzonti competitional sidebar of the 79th edition of the Venice International Film Festival, while “Ordinary Failures” (2022), the second feature film by Romanian-Hungarian director Cristina Groşan, shot in Czechia, was presented in the Giornati degli Autori parallel section of the same prestigious festival.


There’s no news in the fact that one of the transformations of recent Romanian festival fare is its increasing internationalization – coproductions between several countries, topics set outside of Romania, casts in which Romanian actors act alongside foreign performers, and dialogues set in several languages. On top of this, the past few years have brought up discussions about the inclinations that certain filmmakers have towards genre cinema, especially thrillers, from which, they cull certain definitive elements with varying degrees of success. And there is also the wish to retrieve certain periods from the past that were hitherto glossed over – amongst them, the tumultuous nineties.

All these strong currents of change are visible in the fiction debut feature of director Mihai Mincan, To the North, a project whose script is already several years old (the Romanian CNC financed it in 2016) and whose production, mainly handled by Romanian compare deFilm, was complicated due to logistical constraints (the story is almost entirely set on a ship that transports cargo containers, and the cast is mostly composed of actors of Asian descent) and the pandemic.

The result, however, is up to par with the ambitions that set such a production in motion – a film in which the attention to form (the wish to create suspense and tension) is supplemented, in the film’s secondary plane, by the questioning of topics such as faith (and the things one is disposed to commit in its name) or the tragedy of Romanians who were willing to do anything to arrive in the United States, in the first few years after the Revolution (a situation that resonates quite powerfully with the tragedies that periodically happen in the Mediterranean in the past few years, in the cases of African and Middle-Eastern migrants that risk their lives to arrive in Europe).

The script (also written by Mincan) starts from a real case that took place in 1996, which was covered by the press at the time, and which the filmmaker stumbled upon by chance. Four Romanians, in pairs and two shifts, tried to cross the ocean from Spain to America by sneaking up on a cargo ship. The first two were discovered by the crew and thrown overboard, killed without a trace (in what seems to have been quite common practice at the time). Regarding the other two, one was also discovered, stabbed, and thrown overboard, while the final one managed to arrive at his destination with the help of a Filipino sailor.

“To the North”

Mincan fictionalized the story of the two young dreamers who embarked on the second attempt, changing the nationality of the one who has a tragic fate, who thus becomes Bulgarian (a decision probably determined by the fact that Bulgaria is one of the co-producing countries) and who exits the plot quite quickly. The filmmaker, an ex-journalist who has become a scriptwriter and director (co-authoring three documentary features before To the North), rejects the realistic convention of a sole perspective and protagonist. The storyline sways between a Romanian immigrant (performed by Niko Becker, a young actor at the German Theater in Timişoara), who hides in the labyrinthine rooms and containers on the ship, risking discovery at all times, and a Filipino sailor (performed by experienced actor Soliman Cruz) who, due to religious reasons (he is a faithful and morally upright person) takes him under his wing and keeps him away from the eyes of his violent Taiwanese higher-ups.

This game of hide-and-seek, where everyone ends up suspecting everyone and nobody knows the other’s intentions to the fullest extent, in a micro-community that is ethnically and socially stratified, becomes that hard matter of a slow-burning thriller (with some breaks in its rhythm – accelerations of camera movements when danger lurks closeby, or slow-motions when a certain alienation of the characters is predominant).

Granted, such a film, that is set in an isolated and restricted space, with a topic that aspires towards higher ideals, comes hand in hand with the danger of collapsing under the weight of a cinematic parable. This danger is only half-avoided. The mise-en-scene is sufficiently good at reining in the genre’s conventions to become truly pleasurable – a source Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho). At the same time, the characters do speak in aphorisms sometimes (which are also designed as keys of interpretation for the film) and have a certain affectation in their delivery, which risks transforming them into representatives of certain typologies or values that are set into opposition and conflict solely due to the script’s necessities.

Even so, with To the North, one of the year’s most highly-expected Romanian films, Mihai Mincan – a philosophy graduate, with more than ten years of experience in the field of journalism and a cinephile – makes a stunning entrance into Romanian cinema.

“Ordinary Failures”

In her debut feature, Things Worth Crying About (2021), shot in her adopted country of Hungary, Cristina Groșan set out to check the state of the 30-something-old generation through the story of a young woman who finds it difficult to fit in and conform to social norms.

In her second film, Ordinary Failures (2022), made in the Czech Republic, the Romanian-Hungarian filmmaker (born in Arad to a mixed ethnic family) discusses three aspects of femininity at different ages, through three intertwining stories set in modern-day Prague – a woman on the verge of retirement who is struggling to cope with the death of her husband and the problems at the magazine she works for as an editor, a teenage girl beginning to discover her sexuality while her parents struggle to understand her, and a mother caught in a moment of existential crisis.

Like the protagonist in Things Worth Crying About, the three heroines in Ordinary Failures also seem to feel alienated – alienation from others and a way of closing into themselves that the three actresses perform with sensitivity. But they also seem to have a rare ability to look at and take part in the mystery of the world around them, which takes on unexpected forms – a robot dog, a cat that has just given birth, the simple pleasure of wandering the streets and cafes.

It all takes place against an apocalyptic backdrop – one morning, an explosion with an uncertain cause occurs in the city, triggering a series of phenomena that turn the lives of the inhabitants upside down in a matter of hours (the light changes, fires erupt out of nowhere, electricity flashes everywhere, the sky turns purple and ominous, the earth cracks open in certain places).

It’s as if the inner drama of each of the three characters takes on cosmic proportions. The collapse of the usual order of life and the new world it brings with it resonates with the transformation that the protagonists are going through, in their quest to achieve inner peace and to truly connect with others. Only then can we understand that salvation can only come from the act of sincerely rediscovering those around you, with whom you can move forward when everything around you is collapsing.

Journalist and film critic. Curator for some film festivals in Romania. At "Films in Frame" publishes interviews with both young and established filmmakers.