Reviewed by Jonathan Berk
Writer and director Cristian Mungiu’s new film R.M.N. opens with a young boy walking alone in the woods. It’s clear he sees something that bothers him, and he retreats back the way he came. The film then jumps to a sheep slaughterhouse and introduces the audience to Matthais (Marin Grigore). He violates work rules to take a phone call that appears to be an emergency. One of his supervisors calls him a "lazy Gypsy," and Matthais retaliates with a headbutt. Realizing this job is over and not wanting to risk being arrested for assault, Matthais flees Germany to return to his small hometown in Transylvania.
In this village, the third major character, Csilla (Judith State), is the manager of a bakery in dire need of employees to qualify for government funding. The locals in the village either left for work or don’t feel the bakery paying minimum wage is worth their time, so Csilla and the owner are considering taking employees from another country. The tensions about who belongs are initially underneath the surface. Hungarian, Romanian, German, French, and English are spoken in the film — and sometimes depicted in different color captions — demonstrating the multiethnic nature of the village. It’s when these “outsiders” arrive that the xenophobia and cultural tensions kick in.
Mungiu’s style forces the audience to sit in these tense moments. He chooses static long takes, with the staging of the actors being the momentum of the scene, not the editing. There is one particular moment that is touted as being 17 minutes long and brings all the film's themes to the forefront. It is painfully uncomfortable to sit through, and the camera placement and staging of the actors in the scene make it even more so. In the forefront of the shot are Matthais and Csilla, whose relationship was extremely complicated during the film, but takes on several more layers in these moments. They’re surrounded by severely angry townspeople who are voicing their concerns about the Sri Lankan employees at the bakery. It is such an impactful scene that leads to the film's final moments.
R.M.N. is full of metaphors, which I usually appreciate. I have been unable to stop analyzing the various layers this film offers. While I often enjoy it when a movie sticks in my mind so much and makes me ponder what it was trying to say, I am finding this one to frustrate me more because of how many things feel uncertain. There are pieces left up for interpretation that severely change the events in the film, more so than the meaning that we can apply to it. It ultimately feels a little sloppy in the end, because I can’t discern what some characters' motivations were or what exactly leads Matthias on his wild chase through the city at the end. I even rewatched the last fifteen minutes to see if I missed a key element, but I found out I had not. Ultimately, the movie worked for me despite this, but it definitely took a hit for the way I felt at the end of my viewing.
R.M.N is out in theaters on April 28.