R.M.N. Cristian Mungiu

R.M.N. is another incredible film from one of our greatest living filmmakers

4.5 out of 5 stars

It’s near Christmas, and a young boy walks to school through the woods in a small Romanian village. There’s no snow underfoot, but a cold wind rattles tree branches as leaves scrape the ground. The air is crisp and the sky is overcast; the light tints the environment with shades of deep blue as an overriding sense of melancholy pervades. The child follows his usual route until he stops dead in his tracks. He looks up and past the camera, temporarily stiff, before he runs away. After this incident, he refuses to speak.

Cristian Mungiu’s latest film, R.M.N., is beguiling. Though seemingly rooted in a naturalist tradition, paranoia and superstition increasingly complicate the film’s relationship with reality. With various threads, a young boy traumatized in the woods, the tense presence of three foreign workers in a factory and a steamy affair, the movie observes as a village descends into a collective madness over a Christmas break, culminating in an act of misdirected mob violence.

As with his other films, Mungiu weaves together observation and surreal conjunction. The absurdity of 21st-century life within Romania balances a society torn between the reality of poverty and struggle with the shadows of the old world. In R.M.N., most young men have long left the village to find work in other parts of Europe. Working in construction or, like Matthias (Marin Grigore), in a slaughterhouse, they scrape by with more money in dangerous and undesirable work abroad. They are perceived as second-class citizens willing to work for less and struggle to find dignity or upward mobility despite the higher pay.

The tensions wrought by this dynamic, the inability to find well-paying work at home and the loss of humanity abroad come to roost in R.M.N. As the local bread factory struggles to find locals to work for low wages, they feel forced to hire foreign workers. The villagers begin to dislike that foreigners have “stolen their jobs” even though they have no interest in them. They first take to the internet to decry their presence, but their rage soon pours into daily life; gossip in the streets and indignation in church. It’s not long before resentments fester and boil over as the tranquillity of the small strained village erupts into chaos. 

Against this backdrop, Matthias, who has recently returned from Germany after assaulting a boss, attempts to pull his son out of his silence by forcing him to “man” up. He brings him hunting while blaming his mother for babying him. Matthias resumes an affair with the new boss of the factory, an ethnic Hungarian woman named Csilla (Judith State), who lives in a renovated house. She rehearses as part of a classical band when she’s not working. At night, she sips wine and listens to Yumeji’s theme from Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love. The musical theme serves to undercut how this world’s limited curiosity and mobility will inevitably stifle the romanticism possible in Wong Kar-Wai’s imagination. Sensuality offers little reprise when the body and spirit are neglected and violated. 

As celebrations for Christmas heighten, the streets fill increasingly with revellers. People wear costumes. A young student from France asks questions about the traditions. Why do some villagers dress as bears? “To be one with the animal,” explains one man. “What about the sticks?” he asks. “To fight for the new New Year. It’s a tradition to chase away bad omens.” With a camera that feels like a witness rather than an interpreter, the parade crosses the frame with little interruption or cutaway. The irony of fighting for the future by fighting for the past is lost on the increasingly furious villagers.

The film culminates in an incredible town hall sequence as seemingly the entire village meets in a small, tight room. The divided crowd argues and debates the presence of the workers, turning against each other and their values. Shot in a single, uninterrupted take, their bitterness about their obsolescence and their own mistreatment abroad burns brighter and brighter, cheered on by new communication mechanisms. Though one can imagine many aspects of the film transplanted to a different time and place, the perfect storm of social media and Romania’s underprivileged position within Europe breeds a concentrated resentment. When people feel crushed by the boot of the rest of the world, rather than search for compassion, they take the first opportunity to turn around and repeat those violations against those even more vulnerable than they are.

Vulnerability is perceived as a weakness throughout the film. The foreigners are destabilized and ostracized, making their precarious situation more untenable. Matthias is torn between two fragile bodies: his ailing father and his traumatized son. Despite his rising anxiety over his father’s illness, he casts him into the shadows, ignoring the problem. Rather than offer his son warmth and safety, he teaches him to be more of a man — pulling his young boy away from his mother’s comfort and into the woods, where he’s forced to learn to hunt and to “confront” his fears. Rather than pinpoint the real threat, to rise up against oppression and inequality, the villagers belittle the weak and turn on their own. 

R.M.N. is a rich and thrilling work by one of contemporary cinema’s greatest filmmakers. Unrelenting in its romance and violence, the movie draws us into a liminal space — a village on the brink of collapse, the dead time between Christmas and New Year’s and the solemn uncertainty of people unable to imagine a better future. ■

R.M.N. (directed by Cristian Mungiu)

R.M.N. opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, May 5.

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