A man starting his second family is rudely pulled back into his first, with all the guilt and angst that entails, when his teenage son goes missing on a mountain hike in Daniel Sandu’s second feature, The Father Who Moves Mountains, produced by Cristian Mungiu. An adventure film with its heart in the modern tradition of Romanian film drama, it should appeal to a larger audience than pure art house fans. Its edgy story about an aging man of action confronting a mountain disaster and plunging headlong into a dangerous rescue operation ought to attract adventure lovers, aided by the initially breathless pace (which is later much slowed down, however). The Romanian-Swedish co-prod is premiering in competition at the Shanghai Film Festival.
Sandu’s talent was heralded in his 2017 multi-award-winning debut feature, One Step Behind the Seraphim, which explored the harrowing experiences of a young priest in an Orthodox religious seminary. In The Father Who Moves Mountains, the focus is again on the inner conflicts of fully drawn dramatic characters. Mircea Jianu (Adrian Titieni) is a retired intel officer who still commands his faithful underling Laurentiu (Virgil Aioanei) like a dog. Early scenes show him shopping for wallpaper with his young, attractive and very much pregnant second wife/companion Alina (Judith State). But when he learns that Cosmin, the son he had with first wife, Paula (Elena Purea), has been lost in the fearsome Bucegi mountains in wintertime, he drops every pretense of domesticity and rushes to the scene.
The Father Who Moves Mountains
The Bottom Line
A robust domestic adventure.
The first part of the story describes how Mircea bulldozes his way into rescue operations lead by local pro Cristian (Valeriu Andriuta), who directs his team of experienced mountaineers with skill and protocol — and no results. By then Cosmin and his girlfriend have been missing for four days and hope of finding them alive is dimming.
It is only when Mircea calls in a big, illegal favor from the Romanian intelligence service that a turning point is reached. Lead by the gritty major Filip (Tudor Smoleanu), they arrive like the cavalry with tents, electronic equipment, helicopters, trained men and knowhow that makes success seem as inevitable as in any Hollywood actioner. Their military radar screens may look low-tech compared to a lot of today’s TV, but they’re reassuring to Mircea, Paula and the audience. You can already envision the emotional embrace between father and son.
Then, almost imperceptibly, the story changes course, veering from a straightforward rescue drama to an inner journey testing the courage and determination of all concerned. The lengths to which Mircea is willing to go to find his son puts his own motivations into question. Guilt? Obsession? Ego? Stage thesp Titieni (who played memorably conflicted dads in Calin Peter Netzer’s Child’s Pose and in Mungiu’s own Graduation) creates a portrait of compulsion that is almost monstrous at times, challenging our conventional ideas about paternal bonds and their moral outer limits, all the way to the rigorous ending.
Sandu directs an excellent supporting cast whose viewpoints change over time and gives each of them a moment of truth, like Purea’s cruel, almost offhand accusation that her son’s girlfriend killed him by encouraging him to go to the mountains. The fact that she says this very calmly to the girl’s distraught mother is revolting. No apologies offered — though later she is surprisingly merciful in confronting her ex and his outré behavior.
Shooting took place over three winters while the crew waited for blizzards and avalanche opportunities. Tudor Vladimir Panduru, who was the cinematographer on Graduation, captures some dazzling shots of the Carpathian mountain range, using the omnipresent snow to whiteout Mircea’s surroundings as his inner voyage proceeds. The film’s pace seems a little drawn out and jerky, however, as the story changes mood several times.