The title of Palme d’Or laureate Cristian Mungiu’s new film sounds like an abbreviation for his homeland, Romania. But R.M.N. is actually the local acronym for an MRI, which one of the characters receives in the film, and which is an apt term for a movie that gives a full-scale brain scan to a nation beset by multiple conflicts of the racial, social, political, national, ecological, and, at least here, emotional variety.
The writer-director puts all of these tensions under a microscope in this slow-burn, small-town drama set in rural Transylvania — a land at the crossroads of several nations and languages that come clashing together over New Year holiday. Like Mungiu’s previous work, especially 2016’s Graduation, which won him the Best Director prize in Cannes, this is masterly understated filmmaking marked by a few stand-out sequences, particularly a one-shot town hall meeting that lasts for an entire reel and throws all the issues on the table before erupting into chaos.
The Bottom Line
A piercing slow-burn drama that’s both layered and abstruse.
It’s a high point in a film that takes its time, perhaps too much so in spots, to connect its disparate characters and plotlines, arriving at a conclusion that lacks some clarity and may leave viewers asking more questions than they’d like to. Still, R.M.N. is a fascinating, very human exploration of the many problems faced by one of the last countries to enter the EU — Romania joined along with Bulgaria in 2007 — boiling matters down to a handful of people trying to make the very best of their lives.
Those people include Matthias (Marin Grigore), a bulky, stoical slaughterhouse worker who returns from Germany to his native village of Recia, where he chases down an old flame, Csilla (Judith State), a cellist and music lover who manages the local bread factory for her day job.
Mungiu’s script follows the two as they deal with various matters both personal and professional that snowball over the winter break. For Matthias, that includes trying to reconnect with his nonverbal young son, Rudi (Mark Blenyesi), while taking care of his ailing father, Papa Otto (Andrei Fini), who receive an MRI after collapsing one morning on his sheep farm. For Csilla, that means dealing with a pair of new factory employees from Sri Lanka whose arrival in the town sparks a racist uprising from the locals.
The film begins with little Rudi crossing a forest on his way to school one morning, where he sees something unknown that leaves him terrified and mute. As in a good fairytale, that tiny event serves as a metaphor for a place wracked by fear of outsiders, in a region that was populated at different epochs by Romanians, Hungarians and Germans, with the actors constantly switching tongues throughout the movie. (In Cannes, the subtitles were color-coded to denote the different languages.)
Following that prologue, we see Matthias fleeing his job abroad after assaulting a manager who called him a “Gypsy” — an ironic insult considering that when he makes it back home, Matthias is the local and the Sri Lankan workers are treated like the unwanted immigrant he was. Questions of identity and national affiliation keep coming back to haunt the characters until they boil over during the film’s second half, when the Hungarian segment of the population begins to outwardly protest the new arrivals, committing an act ripped straight from the handbook of the Ku Klux Klan.
This sounds more explosive than the film really is: Mungiu’s drama takes its time to build up and is more suggestive than action-packed, keeping things grounded in the realities of human behavior and the sleepy rhythms of country life. Working with Graduation cameraman Tudor Vladimir Panduru, the director relies on wide master shots to capture the daunting mountain landscapes and to depict events in a single frame, allowing the actors to play through their long scenes uncut.
Such a method works wonders at key moments, such as the town hall sequence where Matthias and Csilla — whose murky on-and-off romance is a recurring emotional subplot — join dozens of other villagers to debate whether or not to ban the foreign workers, with everyone and their mother, sister, grandmother and grandfather chiming in with their opinion. An earlier scene, where Csilla sits down for a pleasant homemade meal with the Sri Lankans that turns into an impromptu concert, provides a needed pause in the fermenting conflict that lasts for only a few songs before violence interrupts them.
Where Mungiu’s layered storytelling doesn’t quite work is in a finale so suggestive as to remains more or less obtuse, which is unfortunate because until then, R.M.N. was building toward something powerful. If there were a way to clarify that ending, the film would play even better; it’s already filled with ambiguity in a good way, making us ponder the decisions of people caught between personal and national allegiances and the need to simply pay the bills — a situation that’s not entirely different from that of America, France or countless other countries.
The paradox that hovers over Mungiu’s film like a bad omen — or like the mountain bears roaming the forest near town, considered ecologically valuable but a real menace to society — is that the open border stretches two ways, allowing Matthias and Csilla to flee and find well-paid work abroad, draining the local economy, while people from other countries come in to take their place, creating shifts in the population. In both cases one is never quite at home, and in the Romania of R.M.N., home itself has never been clearly defined.