Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. IFC Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, April 28.
Chekhov’s gun has seldom fallen into hands as steady and menacing hands as in Cristian Mungiu’s poorly titled, expertly staged “R.M.N.,” which finds the elite Romanian auteur extrapolating the personal tensions that gripped his previous work (e.g., “Beyond the Hills” and the Palme d’Or-winning “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”) across an entire Transylvanian village. The result is a socioeconomic crucible that carefully shifts its weight to the same foot that Mungiu always loves to rest on your throat; a slightly over-broad story of timeless xenophobia baked full of local flavor and set right on the cusp of a specific moment in the 21st century.
The film begins far away from the snowy hamlet where most of it takes place, as the bull-headed Matthias (Marin Grigore) unceremoniously quits his job at a German slaughterhouse by head-butting his boss for calling him a “lazy Gypsy.” And so, with few other options and the cops on his tail, Matthias returns to the financially dispossessed hometown where he left his young wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu) and their young son Rudi (Mark Blenyesi), who’s refused to speak ever since he saw something in the woods outside their house.
Matthias is one of the many able-bodied men who left his unnamed village in search of work once the local mine shut down, but that doesn’t mean anyone is excited that he’s come back. That’s especially true of his bourgeois, Hungarian-born ex (Judith State as Csilla), second in command at the struggling local bread factory that feeds the town’s economy as best it can.
An incongruously urbane woman who can often be found sitting in her kitchen with a glass of red wine and playing “Yumeji’s Theme” from “In the Mood for Love” on her cello, Csilla refuses to entertain Matthias the first time he comes sniffing around her back door. When she does finally let him inside to fuck — a particular word choice that speaks to Mungiu’s emphasis on the conflicting agendas of language, which he often expresses through a rainbow of color-coded subtitles — Matthias leaves his precious hunting rifle at Csilla’s entryway as a symbol of his non-violent intentions. It would not constitute a spoiler to say that someone picks it up again before the movie is over, though I guarantee that you won’t be able to predict why.
If the tension that percolates beneath “R.M.N.” is immediately palpable in Mungiu’s signature sequence shots — the most arresting of which is a 17-minute long-take set at a bloodthirsty town meeting that collects most of the ensemble cast and splits their dialogue across 26 different speaking parts — the film is slow to reveal the root source of its unease. Unlike Mungiu’s previous features, which stuck to their harried protagonists with all the focus of St. Peter judging their souls, this one reins the implosive Matthias into something of a tour guide for its economic strife. By virtue of his boorishness and disloyalty, Matthias is the only person in town who has a seat at everyone’s table, if not a place in everyone’s bed.
When Matthias’ in-laws host a Christmas meal for their family — and the French boarder who’s come to keep track of the local bear population for an NGO — Matthias is there. When the reverend needs help with his livestock, Matthias is the first man he asks (the film’s unnamed village, evocatively played by an ex-UNESCO heritage site called Rimetea, is the kind of place where “would you kill my pig?” is a typical way of selling hello). And when Csilla needs someone to fetch one of the three men from Sri Lanka she’s legally hired for the low-paying factory positions that the local men won’t take, Matthias obliges without a word. Despite his personal experience with the prejudice that can result from doing foreign labor, Matthias fails to foresee the powder keg that the sweet man on the back of his motorbike is soon to ignite.
For the first half of the movie, in fact, Matthias is more a source of tension than he is a witness to it. Conversations about labor shortages and the lack of available men are largely peripheral to the domestic lives of characters like Csilla, even though she clearly suffers from both. Matthias’ economic anxiety can be felt wherever he goes — it’s suffused into his abusive disposition, and expressed through his toxic expressions of male strength.
During one unusually ravishing moment of transference, Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s watchful camera seems to capture that anger billowing through an ocean of brown leaves before scattering towards the other unemployed men in town. Men who aren’t having sex with the area’s last remaining job provider, and might be a bit faster to project their pent-up frustrations onto her new Sri Lankan employees.
Pulling harder and harder at the tension between complex socioeconomic forces and the simple human emotions they inspire, “R.M.N.” masterfully spins an all too familiar migration narrative into an atavistic passion play about the antagonistic effects of globalization on the European Union. This might be a good time to repeat my recent Cannes mantra: It’s more entertaining than it sounds. The bitter details of Mungiu’s story help with that, particularly as E.U. grants erupt into major focal points and background characters emerge into violent antagonists (standing out from each other even as they collect into a single mob).
There’s a rare elegance to the way that Mungiu establishes the history of this place and its cultural divisions, and an ominousness to the way he anticipates its future; imperceptibly set in 2019 despite being written in 2021, the movie finds some of the town’s more virulent racists referring to their Sri Lankan neighbors as “viruses” whose hands might spread any manner of unspecified disease. No matter what happens toward the end of “R.M.N.,” there’s a sense that what comes next will be even worse.
Keep looking forward and you might not get stuck on Mungiu’s title, which stands for “Rezonanta Magnetica Nucleara,” and only becomes even vaguely self-evident during the brief scene in which Matthias takes his ailing father to a big city hospital for an MRI (in-sourcing labor is seen as a major emergency, but outsourcing emergencies is simply a means of survival). The detour adds little to the mosaic that Mungiu is creating here, and typifies how this film’s more abstract ideas and universal symbols tend to distract from the meat of the drama at hand. As a character, Matthias’ father never quite earns his keep, and his son’s newfound muteness is resolved with a clumsiness seldom found in Mungiu’s work.
Only one sign — tacked on a wall early in the film, and translated into subtitled English as a beacon for Western audiences — pays off in the end. Its message reverberates through the hair-raisingly strange final moments of Mungiu’s latest in a way that allows “R.M.N.” to transcend its predictability while staying rooted to a very specific place; stranding Matthias somewhere in his once-comfortable middle ground between nature and understanding, hatred and despair. The sign reads: “Beware of wild animals.” They’re closer than he thinks.
“R.M.N.” premiered in Competition at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. IFC Films will release it in theaters later this year.