“R.M.N” Explores the Banality of HatredCristian Mungiu’s latest film quietly, then violently, reveals unseen human cruelties.
Set in a Transylvanian mining town in the throes of economic decline, “R.M.N.” bides its time. It begins with a series of vivid, multiethnic portraitures of Romanian, Hungarian and German villagers, then lights a slow fuse beneath them in the form of arriving Sri Lankan workers. A character drama that blossoms slowly but steadily into a discomforting ensemble piece, the latest film from Romanian New Wave mainstay Cristian Mungiu is a methodical and piercing examination of the mechanics of xenophobia. Sure-footed without a hint of didacticism, it’s bookended by riveting cinematic abstractions that are atypical of Mungiu — director of the 2007 Palme d’Or winning abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” — but deployed with heart-wrenching precision.
The film opens with a young boy, Rudi (Mark Blenyesi), witnessing some unseen horror along a winter forest trail, causing him to stop speaking. Rudi is but a minor character within the story, one told through largely the eyes of his mustachioed, rough-and-tumble father, Matthias (Marin Grigore), who returns from his German factory job to find the fabric of his rural hometown subtly but definitively changed. The cause of Rudi’s silence, which Matthias occasionally attempts to investigate, becomes a winding mystery, but its literal origins are of little concern to Mungiu. Instead, this looming question is a flashpoint of frustration for the returning Matthias, whose hyper-masculine, tough-love approach to his son and his estranged wife, Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu), reflect the movie’s larger fabric, in which invisible and imagined phantoms manifest as destructive fears. For Matthias, this means repeatedly traversing the frozen woods, rifle at the ready, in search of retribution against some unknown entity or idea, whose nature he scarcely understands.
On paper, the film’s plot appears simple. Matthias, returning to his broken home, attempts to rekindle his romance with a former flame, Csilla (Judith State), a manager at a local bakery, whose own recent divorce has left her in emotional limbo (a part-time cellist, her lonely laments take the form of wistful music from “In The Mood for Love”). Meanwhile, Csilla’s employer has been searching for more workers to assist with the Christmas-season load. Due to a lack of local applicants, they hire Mahinda (Amitha Jayasinghe) and Alick (Gihan Edirisinghe), a pair of Sri Lankan migrants now settled in Germany, whose arrival is met with scorn by the local community, which sets aside its own ethnic enmities for the sake of expelling the non-white outsiders.
“R.M.N.” doesn’t dive headfirst into this incendiary saga. Mahinda and Alick don’t even appear until half-an-hour into the film’s 125-minute runtime. Until then, Mungiu and cinematographer Tudor Vladimir Panduru establish a visual fabric that is equal parts frigid and fluid, with a cold texture that speaks to the town as a physical place, while an eager camera follows its denizens as they move and interact, establishing the town as a community and packing the frame with joyful group shots at every turn. Geographical and social musings are bound in many of the film’s themes and characters, from the money-minded bakery owner eager to hire new workers in order to qualify for a sizable E.U. stipend, to the low wages that explain why she struggles to find applicants, to the communal tensions that result between various European ethnicities. All the while, Mungiu paints Matthias’ fragile bravado as part and parcel of this story. It’s a state of being both informed by these larger mechanics, and one that informs their outcomes in return, whether through frustrations aimed at others, or sheer indifference towards changing political tides when Matthias has so many other personal issues to deal with in the first place, including his ailing father (Andrei Finti).
The film’s seemingly obscure title is its Rosetta stone. When his father falls ill and goes in for an M.R.I. — the Romanian abbreviation for which is “R.M.N.” — Matthias downloads scanned images of his father’s brain on his smartphone and becomes obsessed with them, searching for the reason or cause behind the chaos of his life. Matthias’s anxiety and defeatism mirrors the uncertainty permeating the town’s search for ways to stay financially afloat. The story bears numerous similarities to the real Romanian town of Ditrau, which was caught in a similar uproar over arriving Sri Lankan bakers in early 2020, but the title also appears to slyly resemble “Romania” itself, as if it were Mungiu’s lament for the state of things in his home country. While “R.M.N.” is similarly set pre-COVID, it was written during the pandemic, in 2021, at such a time when anti-Romani fears over disease were on the rise (the village in the film is subtly laced with these sentiments as well, both towards the Romani and the arriving migrants).
The Sri Lankan workers become ready targets for the townspeople’s uncertainties. It begins with nasty Facebook comments aimed at the bakery, but eventually take the shape of meetings and town halls meant to decide the migrants’ fates, with each argument in favor of their exile cascading into a series of compartmentalized, cognitively dissonant self-justifications. Mungiu captures these meetings in unbroken wide shots lasting as long as 15 minutes at a time. This allows for a theatrical unfurling of crowded frames so precisely staged that few dramatic beats or moments of subtext can be missed. And yet, despite the constant cacophony, the film manages to advance several subplots during this section of the film, most notably the romance between Matthias and Csilla. In the process, Mungiu lends aesthetic credence to the refrain “the personal is political” (and vice versa), by disallowing himself the luxury of editing to emphasize specific story beats. The occasional close-up during these sequences would, in theory, disentangle what he perceives as intrinsically woven threads of a singular social fabric.
“R.M.N.” is a quiet work that builds slowly and confidently through these thrilling stylizations, until its depiction of the banality of evil reaches a place so incendiary, the bounds of narrative can no longer contain it. This yields a violent climax that bucks the film’s otherwise grounded musings. It’s the sort of oblique conclusion that might frustrate some viewers. But by ending in a place as haunting and poetic as it begins, it reveals truths about the intervening saga and its unseen human cruelties that linger beneath the surface, out of focus or just outside the frame.Wait, before you go…
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