Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s first film in six years, R.M.N. is a multi-faceted, oft-bleak, and occasionally surreal portrait of racism and toxic masculinity in Romanian society. In its depiction of a part of Europe struggling to keep up with neoliberalism, R.M.N. exposes the dark mirror of liberal, globalised western European metropolitanism.
Mungiu’s latest film is one deeply rooted in and about contemporary Romanian society, depicting fractious ethnic tensions between its indigenous citizens, its sizeable Hungarian minority, and gypsy population. Nevertheless, the society that R.M.N. portrays – one of post-industrial economic instability, fractured communities and suspicion towards outsiders – has profound resonance in smaller, meaner post-Brexit Britain.
There is a greyness that pervades everything in the village where Matthias (Marin Grigore) lives with his wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu) and young son, from the perpetually overcast sky, down to the bare trees and even the faces of the villagers, drawn hollow by decades of stagnation and hopelessness. The village’s major economic driver is a bread factory, where Csilla (Judith State) works, with whom Matthias is having an affair, and who has recently returned from working at a slaughterhouse in Germany.
After Csilla hires three Sri Lankan workers to fill vacancies at the factory – and which will bring in EU funding for the town – local prejudices are exposed and familiar racist discourses about immigrants stealing jobs and even spreading disease begin infecting conversations. Meanwhile, Matthias’ son has become unable to speak after seeing something terrible in the woods, though we do not know what, and his father must go for an MRI scan – or an RMN in Romanian – after collapsing suddenly.
While the tension rises in the village and Csilla does her best to resist the rising darkness, Matthias is determined to find whatever has struck his son silent. His conviction that Ana is coddling him stems from a toxic masculinity that also feeds the racism that is currently suppurating throughout the village. But it also exposes an undefined, almost primal fear. Posters around the village warn of wild animals, while Matthias instructs his son not to approach bears or other beasts unarmed.
At a late stage in the film, a dreamlike encounter with animals is enigmatic and surreal, but nevertheless offers a strange emotional catharsis for Matthias’ rage and his naïveté. R.M.N.’s standout sequence is the town hall meeting following a petition to eject the Sri Lankan workers. A single, static shot, centring a despairing Csilla as her fellow villagers’ most noxious bile erupts around her is chillingly captivating, but Mungiu’s real achievement here is that he never passes judgement on those who have been left behind by western European progress. Their ignorance and hatred is vile and dangerous, but economic and social precarity breed misdirected anger while the the fortunate wag fingers from positions of comfort.