Toward the end of writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N. comes a virtuosic 15-minute crowd scene worthy of a Bruegel painting. Throughout, the camera holds still, while alternating surges of outrage, alarm, approval, and sneering laughter roil its wide, tightly packed human landscape. The crowd often seems to have its own animating logic, but it’s of course made up of individuals, mumbling and shouting across one another in their various languages (Romanian, Hungarian, French) and participating in their own small, vivid scenes within the scene, which we can follow if we choose to filter out the rest of the action. You could watch it many times over and still find new details, textures. This sequence clearly aspires to contain a microcosm of the movie, and of the society it depicts—a village, a nation, a continent, a world—in all its ugly volatility.
In one sense, this is the R.M.N.—Romanian for MRI—of the title, a diagnostic scan of the current dire state of things. What we’re watching is a small-town meeting that takes place at Christmastime, called by the local mayor to discuss a crisis: 411 people have signed a petition to banish some workers from Sri Lanka who have recently been hired at the local bakery. The bakery needs a certain number of employees to qualify for EU funding and has struggled to attract local workers—both Romanians and the large Hungarian minority in that region—who are mostly seeking better pay abroad. Many different opinions and feelings are represented at the meeting (all, it seems, save those of the offending foreigners themselves, absent thanks to death threats and violent attacks).
A roving microphone transmits these views: “We got rid of the Gypsies, now we fight over foreigners?” “Let us mind our words; the West is watching.” “Spare us your West—my son-in-law’s bosses in Germany called him nothing but a Gypsy, and he’s more German than migrants who pick up trash for the dainty natives!” “EU membership entails obligations.” “Like being their retail market?” “This is about hygiene—pardon me, but Muslims don’t wipe their butts like the rest of us, and in a bakery …”
When a brave or foolhardy visiting Frenchman from an environmental NGO attempts to speak up, jeers overwhelm him: “We’re jobless, the mine got shut down—by ecologists! Animals attack our livestock, and he gets paid to count our bears? He can count them in his own country! They don’t have any more bears; they killed them all to build freeways … so they got all developed, and now they tell us to be Europe’s zoo, like they did in Africa, only we’re not savages!... In Paris, there are more Blacks and Arabs than French; it makes you afraid to use the Metro…. You wanted colonies, now handle them! But why do we have to pay for it?… Listen, Mister Fraternité-Égalité …”
This is a familiar set of social problems, nested like Russian dolls, of fragile identities further undermined by economic insecurity. The film refracts the anxieties and resentments of the struggling rural regions of a southeastern European country—exploited, neglected, and condescended to by more prosperous neighbors, on whose largesse it thus all the more depends—into those of individual villagers, showing how they soothe and aggrandize themselves by finding still more vulnerable people to bully and scapegoat. By exploring these widespread tensions over immigration and poverty at a smaller scale, fitting them back into the narratives of everyday life, Mungiu makes them vivid and personal again, conveys more viscerally than a news story can how intractable they are.
The film is a kind of social parable, like Animal Farm, or Shirley Jackson’s story “The Lottery,” but it doesn’t want to sacrifice realist detail—geographic and historical specificity, and the development of characters who demand some emotional engagement—in the service of political force. Mungiu wants to tell a story about people in trouble, to offer a universal moral lesson, and to analyze a particular political conjuncture—and for the most part these elements tend to strengthen and deepen one another, even if his ambition at times puts them under too much strain.
In the meeting-room scene, as the economic grievances, pseudoscientific racism, and injured national pride form their familiar patchwork, we can observe a strange little tableau in the right-hand foreground: Sitting just behind the beleaguered bakery owner and her manager, Csilla (Judith State), is Csilla’s on-off lover, Matthias (Marin Grigore), the film’s hapless anti-hero. He tries to sweet-talk his way back into her affections and keeps grabbing her hand, even as his name is read out on the list of petitioners, and his estranged wife looks daggers at them from a couple of rows back.
The relationship between Csilla and Matthias is finely drawn, though as the film progresses it has to bear what can feel like too much symbolic weight. Matthias is a study in impoverished, humiliated, needy masculinity. He has returned from his job in a German slaughterhouse and must now address his own various crises. His father, Papa Otto, a sheep farmer, is in poor health and increasingly unable to manage alone; his son, Rudi, has stopped speaking and regressed after seeing something disturbing in the woods; and Rudi’s mother is visibly sick of Matthias’s intermittent tantrums, his attempts to reclaim his lost status as man of the house through intimidation and force.
We see him watching Csilla at night from outside the large, pretty house she’s inherited from her parents—he seems threatening at times, at others small and excluded, aspiring to another kind of life. She sips wine and listens to classical music, stopping the recording at intervals to try the phrases on her cello. This often seems a portrait of civilization juxtaposed with encroaching barbarism, but it’s one emphatically dependent on creature comforts unavailable to most of the community. Their resentment of her is occasionally expressed through slut-shaming misogyny, which dovetails neatly with their racialized disgust at the idea of the newcomers putting their hands in the bread, culminating in a boycott of the bakery.
As discontent grows louder in the village, the silent boy seems to hold all its unresolvable tensions. Where the local church and its priest—who sputters to explain to his flock how he, like the bakery owner, affords a Mercedes while they scrape by—offer no relief and no wisdom, instead choosing to shore up their authority by supporting and magnifying the worst instincts of the mob, Rudi serves as a Christlike figure, showing up the wretchedness around him, and manifesting the sadness, fear, vulnerability, and unmet need the adults are concealing or transmuting into violence. He speaks only once during the film—words of love, while everyone else for a brief moment stops arguing, stands quiet.
Mungiu’s films are social thrillers or tragedies, often focusing on the emotional consequences for individuals of large, crushing institutional and political forces, which he sets up to play out under time pressure. His second feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), a period piece set in the 1980s under Ceaușescu’s dictatorship, follows two friends in the attempt to secure one of them an illegal abortion. In Beyond the Hills (2012), a young woman named Alina tries to persuade the woman she loves, with whom she grew up in an orphanage, to leave the religious community she has joined and emigrate with her. Alina grows increasingly distressed and, after receiving inadequate care in an overstretched hospital and finding that her former foster family has given away her room, becomes the subject of a misguided and brutal exorcism.
That film, like R.M.N., is based on a real event, but its portrayal of the relationship between the two young women, more profoundly affecting than that between Matthias and Csilla, forms its heart and creates its wrenching sense of contingency. R.M.N., though consistently absorbing and striking, at times risks being overpowered by its own source material. That masterful scene in the town hall is a variation on a real video of a similar meeting, recorded in a Romanian village in February 2020, and it is the film’s signature accomplishment, somewhat overshadowing the more intimate dramas Mungiu constructs and imagines around it. The set of political conflicts and problems so painstakingly laid out in that scene is a fascinating cat’s cradle that seems to require and deserve still more unraveling, and the love and family stories that unfold through the rest of the film don’t always feel adequate to the task—they express the immediate effects of these difficulties, rather than fully exploring how they work. The troubles among Matthias, his ex, and Csilla feel fairly universal—they don’t tell us a great deal about this particular historical moment.
It’s almost as if the film begins to shrink from the essential darkness of its own social logic, from the frighteningly pessimistic view it has set up. Matthias and his ex make quite different choices within similar economic constraints, and Csilla shows more integrity than her boss, who, seeing her business under threat, offers concessions as ugly and pusillanimous as they are futile: They’ll have the foreigners wear gloves, she says, or move them to accommodations outside the village. But still there is the sense that material conditions largely constrain moral choice and feeling and are quite inexorable in determining the course of events.
The analytical portrait of the community provided at the meeting is what stays with you. Mungiu’s more fanciful flights can’t always compete. Throughout, there are gestures at atavistic and metaphysical forces at play. The movie begins with little Rudi on his walk to school, alone in the woods, confronting head-on a danger we the viewer don’t see—it could be a fearful projection, or a metaphor, or perhaps it’s us. The film’s closing frames, on the other hand, show his father faced with something that likewise seems symbolic—representing a threat that may come from outside or from within him. These flourishes are perhaps the answer to a question that inevitably arises in making art from the headlines, reconstructing real events that seem to pulse with dramatic promise, irresolvable needs and conflicts—what is it possible to add?