THE STORY – Matthias returns to his parents’ mountain village in Transylvania, longing to see his ex Csilla again. Arriving on the scene, he notices the unrest caused by Csilla offering two foreigners work in her bakery.
THE CAST – Marin Grigore & Judith State
THE TEAM – Cristian Mungiu (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 125 Minutes
In countries around the world, customs and traditions exist that are germane solely to that country, never spreading beyond the sovereign borders of that particular nation. But sadly, often tragically, xenophobia recognizes no such borders. Hatred of foreigners – particularly foreigners of color – ignores all boundary lines and spreads its plague from the largest cities to the smallest towns. And in Cristian Mungiu’s often-powerful new film “R.M.N.,” xenophobia can infect even the tiniest village, a spiritual disease that he brings to vibrant, often terrifying, life.
The style of the celebrated Romanian filmmaker has always been low-key, creating an almost matter-of-fact atmosphere to suggest that what’s happening in each of his films could happen to anyone. But with his subjects, he can be quietly brutal, like the manipulative use of religion in “Beyond the Hills” or the role of women in a totalitarian society in his Palme d’Or-winning “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” In “R.M.N.,” Mungiu shows similar insight, perceptively tying the rise of xenophobia within a populace with the decline of economic opportunity facing them.
After quitting his job in Germany for slugging his boss, who called him a “lazy Gypsy,” Matthias (Marin Grigore) returns home to his Transylvanian village, where the job prospects are even bleaker. There, he reunites with the two women in his life: his wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu), who is worried about their silent young son Rudi (Mark Blenyesi), and his ex-lover Csilla (Judith State), who runs the local bread factory that has available jobs but pays low wages.
Csilla desperately needs workers, so when the unemployed locals turn up their noses at the low pay offered, she decides to import workers from Sri Lanka, a move that causes a not-so-quiet uproar in the town. Ignoring their demands for higher wages is insult enough, they argue, but to bring in foreigners for what they perceive to be their jobs with different skin color than theirs is too much for them to bear. Their angry hatred soon comes to a violent head in a town meeting where their racism and xenophobia are captured by Mungiu in a remarkable 17-minute take of escalating prejudice, revealing a degree of vituperative hate rarely seen outside American school board meetings.
In contrast, Matthias’s interactions with his family are a bit more subdued, if not less emotional. Ana, for example, still resents Matthias for abandoning his family for a job and leaving her to raise Rudi alone, while the sophisticated Csilla is not above taking in Matthias for a quick bit of sex. His ailing father desperately needs an M.R.I. (or an “R.M.N.” in Romanian). Still, Matthias’s most concerning dilemma is Rudi, who has stopped speaking since he saw something mysterious in the woods. Rifle in hand, Matthias takes his son back to the forest to find an answer, and there he begins to suspect that what Rudi saw might have something to do with what’s dividing the village.
If “R.M.N.” somehow fails to land with the emotional impact of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” it may be because, though Matthias and his family are fully developed, the townspeople (who take up so much of the story) are sketchily drawn by comparison. One of the distinguishing features of Mungiu’s earlier films is his detailed character work that helps to individualize the community members he’s depicting. But, while a few of the locals here show promising individuality early in the film, later, when they come together to become a faceless mob, that distinctiveness is lost. They stop being characters and become mere political symbols.
Still, Mungiu never loses the grace that comes with his storytelling approach, even as there’s no denying the force with which “R.M.N.” makes its plea for understanding. As the racist epithets fly during the climactic town meeting, he strikes one unexpectedly chilling note. During one tirade, several townspeople begin to call the Sri Lankan workers “a virus” and argue that, while kneading the bread dough in the factory with their hands, they are spreading their virus into the townspeople’s food. “R.M.N.” takes place in 2019. Little did these villagers realize that a genuine virus would soon infect their bodies, bringing on sickness and death and, inevitably, another round of deadly xenophobia. And, still, the beat goes on.