Dumitru (Niko Becker) and Georgi have a pretty good idea about how they’ll get to America in “To the North,” plotting their escape from Romania for the land of opportunity by jumping aboard a cargo ship headed across the Atlantic. From seeing how the ships dock, they know where they’ll climb aboard without being spotted and the shipping containers they can slip between to hide while the boat leaves the port, suspecting that once they’re on, the ship’s crew will have no choice but to take pity on them, offering clean water and sustenance that they’ll need to make the four day journey. However, when filmmaker Mihai Mincan plunges audiences into the film with two men not unlike themselves treading in the middle of the ocean without ever going back to them, you know something about their travel plans that they do not, a key part of the suspense in this slow burn thriller.
With a similar sense of authenticity as Tobias Lindholm’s “A Hijacking” when it comes to its aquatic setting, “To the North” builds in some effective narrative misdirection amidst its dramatic use of the ship’s internal mechanics when it comes to center less on Dumitru and Georgi than Joel (Soliman Cruz), the unwitting linchpin of the pair’s plans when he’s approached for help by Georgi once the ship is on the water. One of four Filipino crew members for a Taiwanese captain, the God-fearing maintenance man reluctantly agrees to find Georgi some food, but word of a stowaway quickly reaches his superiors, leaving Dumitru to wonder what happened and likely to have to figure out his survival on his own.
Although the stoic Taiwanese admirals emerge as a relatively unsophisticated villains, throwing out lines in the broken English they use to speak to everyone else of different ethnicities on the ship like “Sometimes bad for everything on this ship to be good,” the looming threat they represent is enough to make “To the North” compelling when drowning seems like a preferable alternative to what could happen in the afterlife when treating other human lives with little regard. Cruz is a particularly gripping presence as Joel, convinced to help Dumitru find a safe spot in the hull of the ship after finding a Bible on him, though hardly seems like the savior Dumitru would want when he insists on him sitting in the darkness not only for his own protection but as a form of religious exercise. Not only does Bosun have his fellow Filipinos to worry about, but when he has a different idea of what Dumitru’s survival entails than he does, the film draws tension from the limits of what Joel is willing to do for his fellow man, a calculus that involves an intriguing mix of Roman Catholicism, boat logistics and self-preservation.
Taking details of the ship to imagine the inner workings of the soul, Mincan’s admirable ambition leads to a more provocative and existential conclusion than most migrant tales when the stakes become far less about whether the passengers will make it to safe harbor than if they’ll be able to live with themselves once they get there and while certitude will often lead nowhere good for anyone onscreen, “To The North” is nonetheless an assured first dramatic feature from its writer/director.
“To the North” will screen again in the Orizzonti section of the Venice Film Festival on September 5th at 2 pm at the Sala Darsena and September 6th at 1 pm at the PalaBiennale.