R.M.N. – On society’s terminal illnesses

26 May, 2022

The end of the Romanian New Cinema has already been discussed for quite some years by now. The rather fragile critical consensus is that the end of this aesthetically and thematically coagulated movement was decisively influenced by the influx of local young directors who released debuts that opened the floor for new approaches in terms of discourse, both visual and thematic (with names such as Ivana Mladenovici, Adina Pintilie, Marius Olteanu, Bogdan Theodor Olteanu, Ruxandra Ghițescu, Monica Stan or Eugen Jebeleanu), but also especially by the fact that the Wave’s leading figures slowly abandoned the rigors of realism and/or the current’s typical topoi and subjects. In the last four years, we have witnessed how the likes of Puiu, Porumboiu and (especially) Jude have reinvented themselves as filmmakers. Even directors like Radu Muntean, who haven’t strayed that far away from the Wave’s signature realism, are dabbling in genre cinema elements, like in Întregalde. Up to now, the main unanswered question was whether the Wave’s most (internationally) successful filmmaker, Cristian Mungiu, whose name and films are practically synonymous with the movement after his 2007 Palme D’Or for 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, will remain faithful to the type of realism that has brought him to fame.

Now, with his first film in the last 6 years, R.M.N., having premiered at this year’s edition of the Cannes film festival, we can surmise that for the moment, the answer is yes, at a superficial level – the film’s formal backbone is made up of long single shots, many of them handheld, many of them being follow shots. Mungiu also uses one of his main approaches in terms of scripting: he adapts a real incident (in this case, that of the two Srilankan bakers who were ostracized by the inhabitants of a village named Ditrău in early 2020) for the purpose of digging deep into the inner workings of an isolated and economically disadvantaged community, going at great lengths to expose their stereotypes and prejudices, which are countered by the image of a female characters that engages them in a conflict. If, in 4, 3, 2, that character was Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and in Beyond the Hills, it was Alina (Cristina Flutur), here, we have Csilla (Judith State), the manager of a bakery in Szeklerland, who has to hire foreign workers in order to fill their vacant jobs, paid on a minimum wage salary – but, by employing them, she will have enough workers in the factory to be able to apply for European development funds. In parallel, we have the story of Matthias (Marin Grigore), a seasonal worker who has to quickly return home after he violently pushes back on his German employer’s racist behavior. Upon his return, he discovered that his son has gone mute after a traumatic incident, that his wife Ana (Marina Bârlădeanu, în a remarkable debut) is giving him the cold shoulder, and that the elderly Otto (whose family relationship to the protagonist is somewhat unclear) is on the verge of death.

The title is a transparent reference to Mungiu’s main aim: that of creating an MRI (RMN in Romanian) scan of one of the Romanian society’s most tense spots; as Jessica Kiang also noted for Variety, the title can also be seen as an acronym of Romania. Indeed, the film mostly focuses on the interethnic relationships in the small village inhabited by Romanian, Hungarian and Saxonic people – and Mungiu gives space to each of the community’s traditions and distinctive Christian denominations, with Csilla acting as a connection between them, a perpetual familiar presence. In contrast, Matthias is a drifter: he aimlessly wanders around through the village’s subgroups, while facing a crisis of his masculine authority at home, and failing to pass on the German language to his son, which he, himself, doesn’t seem to master that well. The two are constructed as polar opposites that end up attracting each other: Csilla (whose name translates to „star”) has a petty bourgeois lifestyle that is guided by a strong, progressive moral compass – Matthias is uprooted, seeking to reestablish his control and his identity. Judith State has a real tour de force in the film, as she easily glides between the four languages that her character speaks, between a warm and familiar attitude to one that is tough and uncompromising; indeed, her performance is one of the film’s peaks. And R.M.N. also has the richest soundtrack out of all of Mungiu’s films – also a cellist, Csilla rehearses Brahms’ Hungarian Dances at the Lutheran church orchestra, while at home, she’s fixated on Yumeji’s Theme, the main musical leitmotif in Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood for Love (2000), foreshadowing her ulterior relationship with Matthias, that will be derailed by the oncoming ethnic conflict on the village.

Despite the meticulousness with which Mungiu maps out the community and the habits of its subgroups – from its multiethnic Christmas celebration to a tense hockey match – he does indeed stray, if even for just a bit, from the hardcore realism of his earlier films. And that lies in his increasing interest for what one may call the metaphysical: if, in Beyond the Hills, it was clear that any and all religious superstitions were just fantasies, in Graduation (2016), we already have the first signs of this new terrain, in the scenes in which protagonist Romeo is seen driving his car at nighttime, haunted by the fact that he ran over an animal. Here, young Rudi’s muteness, prompted by a mysterious apparition that he sees off-screen, is a premonition of all the misfortunes in the film’s second half; and his muteness is probably the only symbol capable of conveying the feeling of desperate hopelessness at the sight of a world marred by poverty, economic emmigration and demographic aging, where one’s fight for survival is contaminated by the racist propaganda of the Orban government, or by other various nationalist agendas. 

However, as appealing as the film’s beginning might be, from a certain point onward, its three main narratives, which are all sufficiently complex as to warrant an entire film just for themselves, start to feel like too much. Which is visible in the film’s climax, the 17-minute-long scene of the village gathering (adapted after the similar meeting that happened in reality, at Ditrău), which is as virtuous as it is schematic in the way it crowds itself with racist/conspiracy theories (such as „the great replacement”), with fair observations making it through at times (like one villager’s complaints regarding minimum wage salaries). It looks like Mungiu was rushing to cover as much as he possibly could in the film, from gender roles and toxic masculinity (for example, Matthias threatens his wife that he’ll murder her) to nationalist exceptionalism (see the speech regarding Romania’s role in „fending off invaders”), and his multilingual epic ends up opening so many topics and threads that, in the end, it doesn’t seem that it knows how to close all of them off. Although undoubtedly admirable in its initiative, given the fact that Romanian cinema is still largely shying away from the topic of local racism (yet not without some dubious moments in its representation of social and economic class), the film gives the feeling that, beyond being able to delve deep into details and to identify them, it doesn’t really know how to propose a course of treatment for the countless social maladies that it has diagnosed.

In all fairness, sometimes the only thing one can do for a society that is suffering from a terminal illness underneath its bucolic surface is to recommend a palliative. And it might just be that said palliative is its very representation – but here the strokes are often too broad, and the tragedies that begin to unfold begin to pile up in a fashion that is too dramatic, giving the sense that R.M.N. might actually be a form of shock treatment. And maybe the only way that one can attempt to treat these diseases is by refusing to answer prejudice with prejudice, by refusing to cross our arms, or to simply throw them over our heads.

R.M.N. will be released in Romania on the 3rd of June.

 



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(Română) Marin Grigore, Judith State, Macrina Bârlădeanu, Orsolya Moldován, Andrei Finți, Mark Blenyesi, Ovidiu Crișan

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.