Romania’s Cristian Mungiu is not a prolific director – he’s made only three films since his devastating, Palme d’Or-winning abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in 2007 – and you can feel the weight of heavy contemplation in R.M.N.. It’s a dense, ominous and fiercely socially-conscious jab at xenophobia and nationalism in his homeland – and far beyond.
The setting, a small Translyvanian town nestled in the Carpathians, is a seemingly straightforward, mutually supportive community, despite its historically combustible mix of Romanians, Hungarians and German-speakers. A local bakery, managed by a bright, ambitious Hungarian woman called Csilla (Judith State), is expanding and urgently hiring new staff, albeit at lower pay than the locals are prepared to accept. In her spare time, she plays cello, prepping for the town’s festive concert. It’s Christmas and it should be a moment of celebration.
Even the unexpected return of Csilla’s sometime bedfellow, the gruff, volatile Matthias (Marin Grigore), from a job in a German abattoir, and the spectre of whatever it is in the local forests that has spooked Matthias’s young son, Rudi (Mark Blenyesi), into muteness, can’t quite break the equilibrium. The town’s ever-barking dogs seem to detect something darker lying in wait.
Sure enough, via long, unblinking takes and with a steady camera that occasionally switches to jerky handheld, Mungiu slowly reveals what’s really on his mind: a substrata of xenophobia, nationalism and racism that lies beneath it all.
R.M.N. stands for ‘Rezonanta Magnetica Nucleara’, a medical scan that detects malignancies in the brain like the one attacking Matthias’s dad’s cerebral function. And the wider cancer here takes root when Csilla and the bakery’s owner hire three diligent, polite Sri Lankan men to fill the gap in their workforce. The town slowly turns, with the local priest as a mediator who comes depressingly close to doubling up as a cheerleader for the angry mob.
One climactic scene somehow juggles 26 different speaking characters in a single 17-minute take
It’s the things that are hidden that matter here, and while inevitably R.M.N. takes a while to find them, its complex web of human relationships is compelling in itself. (There’s an impactful subplot involving Mattias, hardly a poster child for enlightened fatherhood, and his estranged wife in a tug-of-war over how to parent Rudi.)
But with its gutsy performances, especially from the terrific Slate, and one mighty scene involving a climactic town hall meeting that somehow juggles 26 different speaking characters in a single 17-minute take, R.M.N. works best when it morphs into something akin to a western. Only a handful of enlightened folk, led by the courageous Csilla, stand firm in the face of threats and intimidation against their visitors – at one point, they’re all holed up at the Sri Lankan men’s house with masked intruders outside – as all that prejudice spills viciously out. The film’s downbeat conclusion suggests that they, and Europe as a whole, may be fighting a losing battle.
R.M.N. premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.