Film Review – R.M.N.
The title of R.M.N. (2022) loosely translates to “Magnetic Resonance Imaging,” or “M.R.I.” This is a not-so-subtle clue from Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu over his intentions. Just as he did with his Palme D’or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), Mungiu takes a small, enclosed narrative and uses it as a microcosm of society at large. He examines social norms, traditions, and power structures – poking holes in long-held beliefs and finding the hypocrisy underneath. Here, we see him operating with blunt force reckoning, unmasking a community for all its ugliness. His film builds to a fever pitch, where micro-aggressions descend into all out racism. Mungiu holds a mirror at modern society, showing how tribalism and hive-mind thinking brings out the worst in people. While his film does not offer any answers, it takes the important step of admitting that there is a problem.
It’s no surprise that Mungiu sets his stage during the Christmas and New Year season. In a time where charity and goodwill should be of utmost importance, we see characters closing within themselves, creating invisible walls to outsiders. The narrative is split into two parallel storylines. We first meet Matthias (Marin Grigore) working in a German slaughterhouse. Matthias is a physical, brutish man. When a coworker calls him a gypsy, Matthias answers by violently headbutting them. He hitchhikes back to his small Transylvanian village, where his wife (Macrina Barladeanu) informs him that their young son (Mark Edward Blenyesi) saw something in the woods that frightened him. Displaying toxic – maybe even abusive – behavior, Matthias tries to toughen the boy up, afraid that his wife his raising him to be a “sissy.”
Matthias’ arc is juxtaposed with that of Csilla (Judith State). Csilla is the manager of the village’s bakery and happens to be Matthias’ lover. When the bakery cannot hire enough workers within the village, Csilla turns to outside resources. She hires three Sri Lankan immigrants to pick up the slack. This immediately creates fear, paranoia, and resentment within the community. The tension causes villagers to call for a boycott of the bakery, or even take violent actions until the Sri Lankans are sent away. Csilla points out that those complaining are the same people who did not apply when they sent out ads for employment, but that falls on deaf ears. The question then becomes: Should the bakery bend to the will of the people and have the Sri Lankans removed? Do they keep them knowing that it is the right thing to do despite possible retaliation? The question is not only one of moral integrity for Csilla, but it also puts a wedge in her and Matthias’ relationship.
It would be easy to say that Matthias and Csilla exist on opposite ends of the spectrum, where he represents hate and animosity, and she of acceptance and understanding. However, Mungiu paints his characters with conflicting traits. He gives them both good and bad qualities that make them much more fascinating than what we see on the surface. As much aggression Matthias shows to his wife and child, he shows equally as much compassion and humanity towards his ailing father. Although Csilla stands firm to the notion that hiring immigrant workers is good for the overall community, she is also accused of exploiting cheap labor. Where her employees spend hours doing back breaking work, she has the time to play her cello or drink her fancy wine. Her privilege undoubtably comes from a wage disparity between herself and those under her management.
The writing and direction show how easily nationalism, religion, and cultural pride can plant the seeds of racism. We overhear conversations about Romanian history – how their people fought off invaders throughout the centuries. Patriotism and independence have given birth to an irrational fear of “The Other.” Villagers are so petrified of an ever-changing world that they will take any conspiracy theory as truth. It’s a disgusting perspective that unfortunately persists throughout the world, especially in the U.S. You see the same fearmongering to this very day, where fake new stories, extremist lawmakers, and misinformed citizens aim their vitriol toward minority groups. Christianity is used as a thinly veiled excuse for discrimination. Matthias may bristle at being called a gypsy, but when his fellow countrymen hurl that same word toward the Sri Lankans, he doesn’t bat an eye. Is it very “Christian” of the village to hold such disdain toward different cultural backgrounds? Would Jesus approve of this behavior?
Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s cinematography captures the surrounding landscapes in cold blues and greys. This is not the kind of winter wonderland you see in postcards. This is a frigid environment where the ground looks frozen solid. Everyone seems uncomfortable all the time. The mountain ranges act like a barricade preventing escape. As scenes play out in the foreground, the snowcapped peaks loom in the background like an imposing force. There is a sense of claustrophobia as tensions start to escalate. The camerawork switches back and forth between moments of stillness and handheld photography. The subtlety catches us off guard, revealing visuals that look grand and expansive even when the story is intimate. When Matthias tries to teach his son how to build a fire, the enormous mining pit behind them feels dramatic but not overplayed.
The effectiveness of Mungiu’s writing and direction makes itself known gradually. The drama comes to a high point in the film’s most memorable scene: a town hall in the local community center. In a seventeen-minute unbroken take, the camera sits in one spot overlooking the crowd. Matthias and Csilla are seated in the front with the rest of the villagers surrounding them. It is here where all the hidden racism come pouring out. People hurl racial insults, wishing to kick out the strangers that have “invaded” their town. It starts off as a debate but dissolves into a shouting match, where the Sri Lankans are no longer the center of attention. This congregation claims to be religious but come off like a raving mob. All the while, Matthias and Csilla are seated beside each other, allowing us to see their reactions as the atmosphere becomes heated.
Mungiu ends R.M.N. with a scene that will undoubtably divide viewers. While I appreciate that he does not give any definitive answers to the questions he poses, the ambiguous nature of his resolution feels a little too random and bizarre. Given the realistic nature of everything that came beforehand, going for such an extreme tangent is certainly surprising. And yet, I’m not sure it wraps up the film in a satisfying way. I don’t need movies to have a nice and tidy conclusion where all the loose strings are gathered in a neat bow, but I do want a sense that nothing more needs to be said. I’m not so sure that is the case here.
Still, R.M.N. is a powerful, urgent exploration of the evils that hide in supposedly good people. The fact that some can be swayed so easily one way or another might be the point Mungiu is trying to make. In a time where the world is quickly becoming more integrated, where people from different walks of life are interacting more than ever, the need for empathy and patience is vital. Only when we can embrace our differences can we truly understand how similar we really are.