It is one thing to try and make a point about society or critique one of its ills in your film. It is another to transform a narrative into an entire debate around contemporary issues and manage for it not to play as didactic, tedious, or facile.
The Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu has achieved this rare miracle at least three times in the past 15 years, with 2007’s abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 2012’s religious horror Beyond the Hills, and 2016’s tragedy of sexual assault and dashed ambitions, Graduation. When 4 Months won the Palme d’Or, it both skyrocketed the profile of the so-called Romanian New Wave — a loose collection of bold new Romanian filmmakers like Mungiu, Cristi Puiu, and Radu Jude — and allowed Mungiu to transcend it. Alongside South Korea’s Lee Chang Dong, Iran’s Asghar Farhadi, and perhaps Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Mungiu has become one of the world’s most accomplished makers of allegorical, expository social critique as cinema.
Since his Palme victory, he’s also never competed at Cannes without winning a prize. He won Best Screenplay for Beyond the Hills, and Best Director for Graduation (which he shared with Olivier Assayas for Personal Shopper). Expectations couldn’t be higher for R.M.N., Mungiu’s mysteriously titled new film selected for the Official Competition. R.M.N. delivers on virtually all counts, fusing nail-biting and intimate human drama with a scorching critique of globalism and contemporary European geopolitics.
Community as Country
If R.M.N. has a main character it’s Matthias, a brooding, unpredictable man from a small Transylvanian village played with thrilling intensity by Marin Grigore. At the start of the film, Matthias is leaving a shift at his job in a German meatpacking plant when a boss calls him a “fucking gypsy.” Matthias instantly head-butts the man, who crashes through a glass door and starts gushing blood. This is a small taste of what’s to come in R.M.N. — ambient inter-ethnic tension, sudden bursts of violence, and economically desperate people resorting to desperate measures.
Matthias flees on foot to a nearby highway, hitches a ride to sail unnoticed through a border check, and eventually makes his way back to the village. Here we meet the real main character of R.M.N., the village itself. With surgical precision and without remorse, Mungiu slices into the pulsing heart of contemporary Romanian society and reveals not just the rot of its people, but the diseases plaguing social life across Europe. Xenophobia, greed, austerity, the cult of individualism, rising fascism — Mungiu confronts them all simply by recording one village’s reaction to a slight demographic shift.
A Slow Burn
For about its first 90 minutes, R.M.N. plays like a slice of life account of the daily affairs in a typical Transylvanian community, albeit with a palpable, though an indefinable, bass line of tension ratcheting up below the surface. Matthias’s son Rudi has seen something horrible in the woods and refuses to speak. His estranged wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu) allows him to sleep in her bed, and she walks him through the woods to school, angering the macho Matthias, who preaches that “if he isn’t strong he’ll be trampled.”
Matthias meanwhile is rejected everywhere he goes. By his German meatpacking job, by Ana, who turns him out of the house, by a job at the local bread factory because the wage is too low, and by Csilla (Judith State), his former lover who runs operations at the factory. As Matthias’ dispossessed masculine rage simmers, Csilla gets pulled into an increasingly fraught situation at the factory.
Her boss Ms. Dénes (Orsolya Moldovan) refuses to set a living wage for three new jobs at the factory, so they must outsource them to Sri Lankan immigrant laborers. “Asians?” she asks their recruiter. “You’ll like Asians. We don’t even work with Africa,” he responds. The national and ethnic battle lines begin to reveal themselves — Romanians, a smaller, competitive Hungarian population, some wealthy Germans, once despised and still mistrusted Roma people, and now some perfect scapegoats in the Sri Lankans, as representatives of the global south.
The arrival of the Sri Lankans sets the simmering pot to boil. People complain that their “dirty hands” are tainting the bread, and they resent the factory for “taking jobs away from us Romanians.” Csilla upbraids the local priest for his “unchristian” siding with the town against the Sri Lankans. “I won’t hear what’s Christian and what’s not from a woman who doesn’t come to church” — appearances are what matter most, even though Csilla is the only one literally breaking bread with the poorest and meekest among them.
Each meandering subplot and elliptical conversation leads to a jaw-dropping, 15 minutes one take of a town hall meeting, allegorically moved from the church to the cultural center, because the “tent,” so to speak, actually wasn’t big enough for everyone. Mungiu stages what feels like an exorcism of the moral demons of contemporary Europe in this scene. The female factory owners, victors in the game of the new globalism, take the heat from many men for treating Romania as “just a step on their [the Sri Lankans] way to the west.” And a short, effeminate NGO worker sent to Romania from France to count the local bear population is ruthlessly derided when he defends the Sri Lankans by saying “I have seen your people [Romanians] begging on the streets of Paris.”
The entire affair is as eye-opening as it is depressing. In one breath, Romanians will cry out for the deportation and punishment of the Sri Lankan immigrants, and in the next, seek validation for how hard it was when they had to go begging for work in Germany. The factory owners are the only ones sticking up for the Sri Lankans, yet the villagers are right to point out that any job which pays so poorly that only desperate migrant laborers will take it is inherently exploitative. “She has a Mercedes!” one of the villagers says of Mrs. Dénes; “the Priest has a Mercedes!” says another.
R.M.N.: A Powerful Social Thriller
The village ultimately eats itself, descending into a chaos of fire, gunshots, barking dogs, and wild men dressed up in bear costumes. R.M.N. is a movie to be studied over and over again — those first inscrutable 90 minutes pay endless dividends when considered against the consequential final act. It is the work of an artist with a rare gift for transmogrifying culture, politics, and ideology into human drama, available for anyone and everyone to watch, reflect, and hopefully, change.
Have you seen any of Cristian Mungiu’s films? Let us know if you’re excited to see this one in the comments!
R.M.N. premiered on May 21, 2022 at the Cannes Film Festival. Ryan Coleman is part of the inaugural Unifrance Critics Lab.
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.