With R.M.N., Cristian Mungiu braves the cold comforts of xenophobia

RMN (IFC Films)

The Czech New Wave darling returns with a patient, haunting tale of a man grappling with the confluences of racism and socioeconomic anxiety.

Highly lauded Romanian director Cristian Mungiu is back from a six-year hiatus with the curious R.M.N., a look at a town slowly letting itself succumb to its worst fears. Like the famous Twilight Zone episode “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” a town gears up to combat an imaginary menace they’ve created to demonize real people and problems, simply to feel better about their own misfortune and short-sightedness. After three films that failed to capture the attention of his sophomore feature, Cannes Top Honors recipient 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Mungiu has found an edifying middle ground between his wilder ambitions and the style in which he made his name. R.M.N. may suffer from heavy hands, but this is a film of deceptive heft from a director renewed by change.

Romanian ex-pat Matthias (Marin Grigore) is a man whose imposing posture and permanent frown spell a lifetime of eating his feelings. When his boss at the warehouse he staffs in Germany calls him a “lazy gypsy” for answering an emergency phone call on the job he head-butts the unfortunate fellow into a door and hitchhikes back to the Transylvanian village to which he’s been sending his paychecks. Remember that moment because Matthias won’t. Back home he finds his son Rudi (Mark Blenyesi) in a state. He saw something in the woods, relays Matthias’s estranged wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu), and he hasn’t spoken a word since. He offers to walk the boy to school through the woods until he gets over his fear. But it’s plain that Matthias is a man of limited patience. If Rudi can’t face his fears he’s going to get trampled by all the things out there life’s going to throw at him that are properly scary.

Though Ana doesn’t want him there, Matthias sleeps on her couch while he looks for work. He runs into an old flame, Csilla (Judith State), running a factory bakery operation, and she offers him a job he doesn’t take. The position eventually goes to a Sri Lankan worker, one of a host of them in town doing the job because none of the locals want it. Of course that doesn’t stop them from looking askance at the foreigners, wondering why they’re getting ahead while everyone else starves. Tensions rise faster than Csilla or anyone else can control and soon there are petitions and town meetings about the problem of the Sri Lankans. Violence isn’t far behind.

R.M.N. (IFC Films)
R.M.N. (IFC Films)

The question of what kind of filmmaker Mungiu is (or wants to be) has quietly beguiled audiences since he won the Palme d’Or in 2007. This young Romanian, who had but one niche light comedy to his name, 2002’s Occident, came out of nowhere with the most searing work of post-Dardennes neo-neo realism to become an overnight sensation. He wasn’t the only major Romanian talent to emerge in the wake of his victory at Cannes, which made classification even more tricky. His peers Cristi Piui (for whom State has acted twice now), Radu Muntean, and Corneliu Porumboiu carved out their own niche in the realm of long takes and social ills. After producing and co-directing the omnibus comedy Tales from the Golden Age, he released his proper follow-up to 4 Months, 2012’s Beyond the Hills.

Despite a heartbreaking final act and a spellbinding milieu, a sort of Eastern Bloc Black Narcissus, Beyond the Hills failed to make news of Mungiu once more. 2016’s bleak and elliptical Graduation, a sort of greatest hits of the Romanian New Wave, caused even less of a stir. R.M.N. is something of a stylistic departure for the director if also a restatement of his interests and sympathies. Like Graduation, it has a symbolic wounded child, unsettling face masks, and an unfaithful husband. Like Beyond The Hills, it agonizingly chronicles the fundamental, snowballing misunderstanding of the needs of people made to feel like outcasts. Like 4 Months, it’s about powerlessness before a patriarchal power structure. And like Occident, it’s set in a community made up of émigrés and restless locals. It may not take long to situate yourself in its all too familiar world of contradictions and brutality, but there are haunting questions and improbably beautiful suggestions hiding in plain sight.

Where it impresses most are in its dissimilarities from the bulk of Mungiu’s body of work. There’s the Shigeru Umebayashi music cue, which to some will conjure images from Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love, but for others Seijun Suzuki’s impossibly rich 1991 work Yumeji. The earlier film, for which the song was written, follows the life of painter and poet Takehisa Yumeji; tellingly, Mungiu films State’s nude form like she might have been on one of Yumeji’s canvases, with pale, handsome musculature and crooked posture. The film relies largely on masters, painterly images of the community in fraught conversation. Though Mungiu still employs handheld camera, the images have a clarity and purpose frequently missing from Mungiu’s post-Occident work. The cool blue images of the beautiful but melancholy Transylvanian hills are transfixing and hint at a direction similar to the one Puiu adopted with his mammoth 2020 Malmkrog.

R.M.N. (IFC Films)
R.M.N. (IFC Films)

The film also bears a passing resemblance to Dea Kulumbegashvili’s Beginning, about a woman in spiritual crisis in a mountainous region of Georgia. By splitting its focus between the unreachable Matthias and the compassionate if increasingly hopeless Csilla, it shows the consequences of caring too little or too much. Matthias cannot imagine himself in the shoes of the persecuted Sri Lankans or, indeed, in his terrified son. Everyone in town has invented reasons for their bigotry and Csilla knows she’s outnumbered. But if people like her throw their hands up, how will anything change? Csilla humors Matthias as long as she can because she enjoys his blunt masculine appeal, but when he refuses to stand up for the targeted she refuses to allow him into her home, let alone her bed. He spends a fraught town meeting hearing racist invective, yet is more concerned with whether or not Csilla will hold his hand.

In Mungiu’s cinema, the simplest gestures could have saved people from trauma, but no one ever acts in time. In Beyond The Hills, a hug from a friend could have altered the nightmarish trajectory of its two leads. Here, the hug in question comes too late (maybe decades too late) to fix what Matthias has broken — what was already shattered inside of him. He eventually sees for himself what his son was trying to tell him about the terrible things in the woods. What’s lost on Matthias is that those terrible things look at him and see themselves reflected back.

R.M.N. is currently playing in select theaters.

R.M.N. Trailer:

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Scout Tafoya

Scout Tafoya is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist from Doylestown, PA. He is the creator of the long running series The Unloved at RogerEbert.com, and is a regular contributor to The Los Angeles Review of Books, Consequence of Sound, and Nylon Magazine.

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