To the North is Marius Mincan’s debut non-documentary feature, an age old tale of men dreaming of a better life – only to be squashed by other men dreaming of the same. It’s a film with some standout shots, that burns slowly to its predictably tragic finale. While Mincan tries to sustain a high level of tension, he doesn’t always succeed over the two hour runtime, but a powerful, if theatrical, final scene makes sure To the North will stay at the edge of your mind for a while.
It’s the year 1996 and we meet Dumitru and Giorgi, two Eastern Europeans working in Spain who look to sneak onto a ship headed to North America. When, if not during the 90s, was the US not the land where all your dreams could come true? Getting onto the ship proves to be the easy part, but once there you are reliant on the goodwill of those aboard to reach your destination. And goodwill is not that abundant on the high seas, as the haunting, foreboding score of the movie underlies.
It shouldn’t be that hard, but what To the North very effectively conveys, is that making the right choices is contingent on having the freedom to do so. The movie finds nuance in its very blunt moral dilemma, portraying a matryoshka system of constraints that pressures people into doing ungodly things. It asks hefty questions: what is right, what is just, who is good and who is bad and how far are we willing to go to either make our dreams happen or to make sure that the lives we have are not taken from us.
Beyond the pressures of the job, Mincan also highlights the difficulties we face in overcoming our differences when we can’t communicate freely with one another. There is an obvious divide between the mixed crew of the ship, the Filipino workers and the Taiwanese honchos, who can only communicate in simple terms. It’s not much different with the stowaways either and Mincan effectively draws tension from what would otherwise be simple exchanges.
Soliman Cruz, playing Joel, the informal head of the Filipinos, has a powerful screen presence, his solemn gravity and seemingly subservient smiles always imbued with purpose. Niko Becker, who grew up in my hometown of Timisoara, plays Dumitru, and he has that dreamy look of a twentysomething who believes the universe will provide. There is an obvious contrast between the two, but you feel for their intertwined fates.
For all the things that work, I felt the movie wavers under the weight of its heavy burden at times. You cannot sustain yourself on two hours of endless tension, as every scene seems to want to pile onto that somehow. I thought the viewer was supposed to also get some sense of a transformation within Dumitru, but we are kept as isolated from his person, as he is from those aboard the ship, which makes for an interesting experience that doesn’t always work. As always, I reckon a slightly shorter runtime would have made To the North a more taut movie, that hits harder than by just persistently simmering.
Nonetheless, you know there’s something worth exploring when the things you dislike about a movie fit neatly into one paragraph. Mincan proves a patient storyteller with flair for the cinematic, be it in the wide shots of the unnerving ocean, or the claustrophobic mazes on the container-laden vessel. Anchored in particular by Cruz’s performance, To the North takes a hard look at our shared sense of humanity and finds it lacking, but for reasons that are never simple to untwine. 7