IU Cinema began its Global Film Festival series Oct. 24 with Romanian New Wave filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s “R.M.N.” The film follows a man returning to his small mountain town in Romania and the conflict that ensues when a local bakery hires foreign workers.
Mungiu manages to pack in a trove of meaning in each frame and does not waste a minute in weaving a complicated web of sociopolitical conflicts, interpersonal tragedy and betrayal.
The film centers on Matthias, a violent hulking man who returns to his small town and his ex-lover, Csilla, who works at the local bakery and is forced into the center of a village-wide controversy.
Troubles begin when the bakery hires three men from Sri Lanka. The town is immediately distrusting of them, but Csilla defends them in the face of the townspeople’s hostilty and open bigotry.
The film is based on true events and is rendered with stark realism through Tudor Vladimir Panduru’s stunning cinematography. He employs expert handheld camerawork, and the steely blues of his cinematography make even warm candlelit interiors feel as icy as the snow-covered mountains surrounding the village.
Mungiu’s emphasis on realism makes the film unsettling, revealing the pervasive racism that continues today in Romania and, as the film suggests, greater Europe. He takes an almost journalistic approach to timely subject matter, but the film is surpisingly non-judgemental. He does not scold the characters for their behavior, but rather explores what makes humans tick and how this behavior becomes entangled with self-defense and the complexities of cultural and ethnic identity.
In one masterful scene, the camera remains in one position in the front of a courtroom like an observer as townspeople from both sides shout their arguments about the French government, harmful racist stereotypes and complaints about the EU and workers’ rights. The townspeople bare their ignorance, but the scene doesn’t depict these people as monsters or fools, instead letting them explain their own beliefs and their own relationship to their cultural and national identities. It is an unflinching examination of Romanian society and a startingly realistic look at today’s global polticial climate, but not an altogether unforgiving one.
I found the film to be thought-provoking and challenging. The open xenophobia depicted in the film shocked me. I found the complex morality of the characters and the swiftness with which the village forms a mob and resorts to violence to be all too reminsicent of recent events in American culture. Simply put, I have not seen this story told on screen before and I left the theater with much to reflect on.
The film manages to strike a unique tone. It is documentary-style, supernatural and nightmarish, especially regarding the more mysterious aspects of the town’s culture and the film’s ambiguous ending.
Part of the film’s power lies in what Mungiu exposes and what he chooses to withold. Matthias’ son is afraid to walk to school alone and does not say why, revealing much later he saw a man hanging from a tree. Matthias doesn’t believe him after he accompanies his son and can’t find the body. Later, Matthias hears his father takes his own life and is found hanging in the woods, as if a patrilineal curse has come to take its revenge. These more mysterious elements of the film are never explained, and are all the more haunting set against the film’s grounded main conflict.
While the film is a slowburn, it never loses hold of the audience. Mungiu lets the story unfold with a gentle hand, knowing when to hold and let a scene play out, like in the court scene, and when to cut suddenly away, leaving the audience reeling.
It takes an auteur with exactitude to craft an urgent yet careful expose on human darkness, and “R.M.N.” triumphs.