Romanian filmmaker and all around anti-feel-good master Cristian Mungiu has always been an illustrator of disturbing tales from the backwards enclaves of his home country. His latest film, R.M.N., is no different. Taking place in Transylvania, the film has no vampires (or hotels), but what it does have may end up being a much more troubling form of evil. The title refers to the Romanian acronym for “nuclear magnetic resonance”, and there is a scene midway through the movie where a very ill older man is given a brain scan, but Mungiu’s interests are more macro than that. In a small town that boasts of housing various ethnicities and speaking several languages , the introduction of three Sri Lankan laborers creates an explosion of hostile bigotry that quickly spreads throughout its purportedly Christian citizenry.
Taking place right before Christmas and through New Year’s, early winter is a barren time for Transylvania as most men are forced to travel out of the country for work. This is the case for Matthias (Marin Grigore), who works on a contract in a slaughterhouse in Germany despite a wife and child back home. Early in the film, Matthias unceremoniously leaves the job after a manager derisively calls him a gypsy and Matthias quickly, and viciously, head butts him. Matthias is of Roma descent. Transylvanians seem to prefer the derogatory term, and many stories are proudly told of the hostile forcing out of gypsies years earlier. For unspoken reasons, Matthias is accepted by most, and his return to the town is greeted with muted enthusiasm. This unfortunately does not include his wife, Ana (Macrina Bârlâdeanu), who is perturbed by his sudden arrival. Their son, Rudi (Mark Blenyesi), hasn’t spoken since he saw something frightening in the bordering forest, and he won’t tell either of his parents what it was. Matthias’ absence didn’t make Rudi’s trauma-induced silence easier and neither has his return.
Csilla (Judith State) manages a local bakery that is having trouble hiring workers for the holidays. After weeks, no one in town is responding to their want ads, so the owner (Orsolya Moldován), agrees to hire outside help. This comes in the form of three Sri Lankan men who are willing not only to spend the holidays away from family, but also willing to accept the bakery’s minimum wage. Matthias and Csilla have a romantic history, one that Csilla isn’t eager to revisit – especially since he’s married – but the aggressive Matthias pursues anyway. As an old flame reignites between them, tensions start running high throughout the town as news of the Sri Lankans’ employment spreads, leading to conspiratorial outrage and fears that their mostly white town will get overrun by foreigners. What starts as a soft ban on the bakery’s products turns into full-blown threats of violence that Csilla and Matthias do their best to navigate.
In Mungiu’s best films, like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days or Graduation, his brilliant contrast of an intimate story against the backdrop of a larger, dangerous setting creates an arresting suspense that leaves you in perpetual fear of what might happen to the characters – even the ones you don’t like very much. I’m not so sure things fit as perfectly in R.M.N., as it lacks the clarity and psychological exploration that its title suggests. Mungiu masterfully displays how the presence of three brown men can create an electrical charge of racism throughout a town of hundreds, but that leaves little time for him to make the three men anything other than collateral damage in this parable on prejudice. As it is, we’re less worried for them than we are dreading which new form of threat Mungiu will cook up as the story proceeds. The events in R.M.N. are more than just believable, they’re foreseeable, but I’m not sold that they’re brought together into a coherent story.
If the whole feels undercooked, R.M.N. does still captivate on a scene-by-scene level. The performances from State and Grigore are wonderful, playing both ends of Transylvania’s twenty-first century divide. Csilla’s consistent defense of the workers is greeted with more and more resistance, and it doesn’t help that her boss sees all the trouble as nothing more than a line item on her fiscal budget. Matthias’ intensity shields a level of sensitivity and tenderness that has probably been forced out after a lifetime of racism in his hometown. Matthias has come out the other side with their acceptance, but the scars are still present in his hostile treatment of others and his refusal to show vulnerability. Their relationship, and how it evolves as things turn for the worse, is the best part of R.M.N., which still manages to craft scenes that will compel you – even if it’s compelling you to rage.
One such scene is late in the film, when the mayor arrives to calm down the raucous townspeople. The town pastor has already taken sides against the Sri Lankans and the bakery, further emboldening a mob frothing with hatred for outsiders. In a stunning wide shot, Mungiu layers the drama, shooting with deep focus to capture the full spectrum of vehemence felt throughout the room. The camera never moves and holds without a cut for what feels like forever. Csilla and Matthias’ domestic squabble plays haphazardly in the foreground while the background becomes consumed by a bonfire of hate, as every townsperson makes their own unique case for the removal of the workers. The people, so ingrained in their own sense of prejudice, eventually start fighting each other, desperate for an outlet for their own self-hatred. This incredible shot is Mungiu in a nutshell, a sharply political mind who has perfected a visual style to reflect that onto the audience.
The scene works even if it is – in the end – a symptom of why the movie as a whole does not. The common refrains of the bigots (“We have no problems with these people, they should just live in their own country!”) are recited and anyone with even a tertiary understanding of current global events will be made red-faced, but it’s Mungiu’s aggressive neutrality that undoes the effect. With the swirl of violence that escalates in the film’s second half, making a metaphor about society crumbling because of a lack of communication feels a bit pat. The film’s ending is a cheeky sequence that both tips its hat to Mungiu’s cleverness but also reveals how he’s written himself into a corner. If there is a degree of disappointment with R.M.N., it’s mostly because Mungiu is such a precise, careful storyteller, and this mostly like a exhibition for him to show off his plentiful cinematic skill.
Written, Produced and Directed by Cristian Mungiu