In an age with too many Adam McKay or Aaron Sorkin movies that are punishingly tone-deaf and insultingly superficial in their political critiques, R.M.N. is a breath of fresh air. Well, maybe not exactly — the actual contents of the film are quite caustic and grim. But where so many overtly political films fail to interrogate systems of power, Cristian Mungiu’s observational, still-framed direction makes for a dramatic and worthwhile tale of cultural and economic divisions widening with every passing scene.
Matthias (Marin Grigore) works at a German slaughterhouse. Like many in his village, he had to go abroad to find work after almost all of the jobs with living wages dried up. That is, until he’s unceremoniously canned after head-butting his boss for calling him a “lazy gypsy.” Out of options, he returns home to his small Romanian village where his estranged wife Ana (Marcina Bârlădeanu) lives with their nearly silent son Rudi (Mark Blenyesi). Matthias learns that Rudi is afraid to walk alone to school after seeing something in the woods, leading Matthias to take it upon himself to teach him a few lessons about being a “man.”
Meanwhile, Matthias’ ex-girlfriend Csilla (Judith State) works at the local bread factory — one of the few employers left in the area after the local mine was shut down. Even so, the factory can’t offer wages high enough to entice locals to apply, and the factory needs enough workers to apply for an EU grant, so she and her boss work with a liaison to legally hire three Sri Lankan immigrants (Amitha Jayasinghe, Gihan Edirisinghe, and Nuwan Karunarathna) for the roles.
In its first half, R.M.N. mostly moves back and forth between these two tracks, and each time Matthias and Csilla interact, it’s almost as if they’re bringing the baggage of their interactions around town with them. Csilla, feeling a bit trapped by a system wherein everyone is fending for themselves and nobody comes out a winner, is often drinking red wine alone in her cottage, playing her cello along to “Yumeji’s Theme” from In the Mood for Love, which sounds like a great Friday night, but certainly isn’t depicted that way here. Matthias, compensating mightily for his lack of economic dependability by portraying classic toxic masculinity traits, gets front-row seats to townsfolks’ queasiness for the newly arrived immigrants. He’s often in the fray as others openly share their disdain.
To answer the question I’m sure has been billowing in most readers since the beginning of this article, the film’s title is a Romanian acronym for an MRI, which Matthias’s ailing father gets in the film’s frankly least successful side story. But, it speaks volumes of R.M.N.’s mode of storytelling, which is highly observational. Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s cinematography could easily be described with medical terminology with its exacting camera moves and sterile color palette. It’s a style that works so perfectly for such an anthropological film, one that American filmmakers should look to crib more often.
That isn’t to dismiss R.M.N. as just an educational exercise, it’s actually very thrilling. The standout scene is a many-minutes-long unbroken take of a town hall meeting where townspeople stop just short of foaming at the mouth in sharing their anger for having immigrants in town. The camera never moves, and it’s absolutely enthralling.
In its specificity, the film spins a universal story of xenophobia and structural decay. Matthias and the other, angrier men of the town fail to see they are the same products of a failing system as the Sri Lankan immigrants. In many ways, R.M.N. is an incisive depiction of how seemingly mundane administrative decisions fracture communities, how globalization incited deep-seated anger and racism, and the downward spiral created by the combination of the two. As the film barrels towards inevitable violence, Cristian Mungiu isn’t very interested in judging any of these characters. Whether they show outward hatred or not, Mungiu knows they all play a part.
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