‘R.M.N.’ review: Cristian Mungiu’s Transylvanian drama reminds us who the real monsters are [B+] | NYFF
In Cristian Mungiu’s drama R.M.N., there is something scary in the woods. Perhaps it is a bear, hungry in midwinter, or perhaps a monster, a kidnapper, an omen of dark days to come. Whatever it is, it has scared young Rudi (Mark Edward Bienyesi) into a state of speechlessness that angers his volatile father, Matthias (Marin Grigore). If Rudi were more like the other boys, Matthias believes, then he wouldn’t be so scared of the woods that he can’t sleep or walk to school alone. Whatever is in the woods is a threat to Matthias’s way of life and his relationships with his father and son, both of which have already been stretched thin by his recent departure. But the threat, he will soon learn, is not external—it has been festering within his sleepy mountain village all his life.
Imbued with crisp social commentary as sharp as the Transylvanian mountain air, R.M.N. (the Romanian abbreviation for Magnetic Resonance Imaging) leaves no member of its ensemble untainted by the ugliness of its conflict. When Matthias absconds from his job at a slaughterhouse in Germany, he finds that the only work available in town is low-paying; not even his former flame Csilla, whose managerial position at a bread factory affords her a layer of economic stability, can offer him a reprieve. No one in town, in fact, will work for the money that Csilla is offering, prompting her to seek out foreign laborers so that the factory will employ enough people to apply for a European Union grant. While Csilla is eager to help the Sri Lankan workers acclimate to life in Romania, the townspeople greet them instead with suspicion.
The development is not surprising: The isolated, almost entirely white community does not take kindly to strangers, especially non-white strangers. Regional and ethnic conflict is so quotidian in the world of R.M.N. that it becomes almost a joke: Rudi performs as a sheep in a Christmas pageant story about warring shepherds from different parts of the country, a tongue-in-cheek moment that loses its humor when the townspeople explode in a screed against the Sri Lankan workers. “We’re fine with them if they stay in their country,” one woman repeats throughout the film, perhaps thinking this makes her look better. When Mahinda (Amitha Jayasinghe) and Alick (Gihan Edirisinghe) try to go to the local church one Sunday, the parishioners escort them out over the initial protests of the reverend, who insists that the men are, like his congregation, God’s children. “They can be God’s children back home,” one parishioner says.
Csilla believes she is above this juvenile pettiness, and even squares off with the reverend for throwing the men out of church. But even she can’t shake off years of learned and inherited rivalry. She insists that she is not Romanian as she teaches the language to Mahinda and Alick; an ethnic Hungarian, her ingrained instinct to not associate herself with the country she has spent life in reflects a conflict of borders whose tensions still sometimes flare today. Hiding, at first, behind profiles on a Next Door-type forum, the town’s ethnic Romanians accuse the Hungarians of leading the charge against the Sri Lankan workers, while the Hungarians throw the same stones. The only thing they can all agree on is their hatred for Romani people and their pride at having seemingly driven the local Romani population to emigrate to Western Europe.
The conflict comes to a height in a scene at the cultural center, where a group behind a petition to expel the Sri Lankan men tries to justify their rationale. The scene is almost funny in a style that echoes fellow Romanian filmmaker Radu Jude in its absurdity. Everyone speaking believes they are right before they are caught admitting their own biases. Everyone is proud that the town hasn’t had an ethnic conflict “since the ‘90s,” after the fall of Ceausescu’s regime—except for that one pesky murder a few years ago. Hanging over this tension like a cloud is Matthias, whose anger has not simmered as his relationships with both Csilla and with his wife, Ana (Macrina Bârladeanu) have further deteriorated. Matthias is classically toxic, equating masculinity with violence and seeing his young son Rudi’s reluctance to kill animals as a reluctance to enter manhood. His love for Rudi and for his ailing father, affectionately called Papa Otto (Andrei Finti), cannot win over his impatience or his temper, but it is these same qualities of hyper masculinity that may cause his undoing at the film’s end.
R.M.N. raises the question not of who is at fault in the disintegration of the town, but rather who is not at fault—who, if anyone, can walk away unscathed and without blood on their hands. Can Csilla persist in her superiority as she faces the reality that the only reason she and her boss, Mrs. Dénes (Orsolya Moldován), hired the Sri Lankan workers is because no (white) villager would work for the factory’s criminally low wages? Can Matthias judge Mahinda and Alick for leaving their homes when he did the same, and then refused the factory work out of a belief that he deserved something better? Can the whole town recover from their failure to heed the warnings of the very young and the very old alike, leading to a tragedy that both groups hinted was barreling towards them?
Mungiu’s drama is not subtle in its exploration of these questions, but it is effective, ending with both audience and ensemble caught in a crosshair more precarious than Matthias’s bear traps. If art is to hold up a mirror to society and reflect it back at a primed audience, then R.M.N. fulfills this premise; let us hope that in our attempts to pretty our reflections, we do not shatter the very mirror.
This review is from the 2022 New York Film Festival. IFC Films will release R.M.N. in the U.S. at a yet to be announced date.