‘Orizont’: Film Review

Courtesy of Mandragora Movies
The hills are alive with the sound of murder.

A family running a remote mountain hotel fall prey to gangsters in this chilly Romanian crime thriller.

Evil lurks in the mist-cloaked mountains of northwest Romania in Orizont, a wintry suspense thriller from writer-director Marian Crisan. Although the set-up initially hints at supernatural spookiness in the spirit of The Shining, the monsters in this pic turn out to be all too human, while the agonizing moral dilemmas are more rooted in film noir than horror. Hitchcock, Polanski and Haneke are obvious reference points, in unsettling mood more than in cinematic mastery.

Crisan has an award-winning track record on the European festival circuit, earning a Cannes Palme d’Or with his 2008 short Megatron, and he does a solid job with this brooding literary adaptation. Premiering at Black Nights in Tallinn last week, Orizont feels sufficiently polished and genre-friendly to translate word-of-mouth buzz into niche theatrical interest.

A sense of unease hangs over the drama from the opening frame as forty-something chef Lucian (Andras Hathazi), his grudging wife Andra (Rodica Lazar) and their small family group stumble through the woodlands toward a remote guesthouse in Romania’s Apuseni mountain region. Transplants from the big city, these new arrivals are set to take over running the inn as their new live-in business. But they also voice dark fears about being stranded here at “the end of the world.”

Soon after their arrival, Lucian and Andra begin to hear ominous warnings about Zoltan (Zsolt Bogdan), an infamous local gangster who runs an illegal logging racket with his boorish henchmen. A charming but Machiavellian godfather figure, “Zoli” himself soon becomes a regular at the couple’s busy restaurant, pressing them for free meals, petty favors and dubious “loans.” Initially intimidated, Lucian bows to pressure, shielding Zoltan from police inquiries in the interest of protecting his family and maintaining a quiet life. But as he becomes increasingly implicated in a criminal netherworld of corruption and murder, the mild-mannered chef is finally forced to take a stand.

Crisan’s atmospheric thriller starts out like a horror movie and ends up almost becoming a modern-day Western. His two leads make a convincing long-term couple, with their buried grudges and resigned compromises. But his outlaw villains seem a little too one-dimensional for such a well-observed pic, especially Zoltan, who never quite conveys the mix of alpha-male charisma and demonic menace that his reputation demands. The inflammatory final act, involving a shock sexual betrayal and a savage revenge killing, also feels a little implausible and overheated after such an understated domestic build-up — more Peckinpah than Polanski.

But Orizont is robust enough to survive a few minor swerves into melodrama. It also looks magnificent, thanks to the muted, painterly, crepuscular tones of Oleg Mutu, the key cinematographer of the Romanian New Wave. Cristian Lolea’s score, all spare strings and nerve-jangling percussion, adds to the Hitchockian undertone of escalating unease.

Production companies: Solar Indie Junction, Rova Film, Mandragora Movies

Cast: Andras Hathazi, Rodica Lazar, Zsolt Bogdan, Maria Seles, Valeriu Andriuta

Director-screenwriter: Marian Crisan

Producers: Bobby Paunesca, Viorel Sergovici, Mihai Dorbantu, Marian Crisan

Cinematographer: Oleg Mutu

Editor: Tudor Pojoni

Production designer: Simona Paduretu

Music: Cristian Lolea

Sales company: Solar Indie Junction

Not rated, 92 minutes