New York 2022 Review: R.M.N., Skillful But Heavy-Handed Xenophobia Drama
Cristian Mungiu uses a cudgel to examine xenophobia in Eastern Europe when a scalpel might have sufficed.
The seduction of the “well-made film” is a very real threat when it comes to evaluating cinema.
Basically, some films can lower your defenses with formal accomplishment -- excellent mise-en-scène, skillful cinematography, sharp editing, and realistic acting -- all topped up with a general air of seriousness and purpose. What’s not to like? You’d almost feel churlish for finding fault with such a film.
For starters, this is almost every single arthouse film at any festival; it’s actually harder to find a poorly made one. Secondly, it’s the equivalent of dressing up a bad-faith argument in erudite prose, refined syntax, and eclectic vocabulary; the argument can still be bad and unpersuasive, even if it is well-worded. This is the quandary we find ourselves in with Cristian Mungiu’s 2022 Cannes Competition entry, R.M.N., undoubtedly a well-made film that is, nevertheless, frustrating due to its heavy-handedness and lack of subtlety.
R.M.N. is a drama about burgeoning racism and xenophobia in a tiny village in Eastern Europe. But we begin in Germany, following Matthias (Marin Grigore) as he travels back to his home in the Transylvania region of Romania, near the border with Hungary. He’s set up as an exemplar of machismo -- tall, strong, bearded -- and a literal butcher by profession. He’s often seen riding around on his dirt bike clad in a black leather jacket.
The first time we meet him, he knocks down a man with a head-butt when he hurls an ethnic slur. He has a young son with his Romanian wife, whom it is mentioned he beat in the past. He rails against his son knitting or needing company to walk to school lest he grows up to be a “sissy.” And in his free time, he also fucks his side piece, a Hungarian ex-pat working in his village.
It is then a surprise to discover the said woman Csilla (Judith State) to be the actual protagonist of R.M.N. She’s the second in command at the local bakery that cannot find any local labor due to the pitiful minimum wages they offer. The film goes to great lengths to mention that few Romanians care for the salaries in Romania and most work abroad.
Csilla’s bakery thus is forced to hire two workers from abroad, Sri Lanka in this case. That starts a firestorm in the village with the locals first boycotting the bakery and then demanding the outright expulsion of the two brown men from their white society.
The sentiment is unmistakable: racism and xenophobia are bad. Only you’d think a film of this message might have been made 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Why now?
The proverbial fig leaf offered up is that the film is entirely based on true events that transpired in the Romanian village of Ditrău. While that is true, this is still an event that happened in a small insular village in the Romanian countryside. Whether the sentiments of Romania as a whole are represented by these villagers is unclear.
Nevertheless, the risk is mainstreaming fringe beliefs by addressing them at length in a major motion picture by an internationally renowned director. It’s akin to New York Times publishing on its front page a lengthy takedown of an ultra-fringe ideology, held by few, at the extreme ends of our political spectrum.
It is easy to punch down, point fingers at the village idiot and shout a sanctimonious sermon. It is much more difficult to deal with the actual menace within the walls of our homes and at the heart of our society. Meaning, addressing racism and xenophobia in Europe is a noble and necessary cause. It is undoubtedly simmering in latent ways and is in danger of exploding. But the greatest peril lies not in minor villages but the heart of the liberal establishment in urban environments. It lets off the more powerful, more dangerous elements off the hook by focusing on toothless distractions.
Far be it for us to critique the choice of subject for this filmmaker -- as noted above we fully approve of it -- it is the nuance-free manner in which he depicts it that severely undercuts his message. The racist, xenophobic villagers are cartoonish, mustache-twirling villains, easy to vilify and root against. At one point some of them literally don Ku Klux Klan hoods.
The situation depicted in the film is so thuddingly obvious, so devoid of complexity, and so clearly black and white that it is akin to a mainstream superhero movie with superhero and supervillain archetypes. Surely, we expect better from our premier auteurs: more delineation and artfulness. The dumb and unlightened xenophobes are not the greatest threats we face but the intelligent and competent. He might have served himself (and us) better by focusing on the latter rather than the former.
Isn’t it all true though, some might say? Sure, but R.M.N. is not a documentary nor a direct translation either. Using the incident as a jumping point to do a greater exploration would have been ideal. Instead, we have this heavy-handed approach from Mungiu, telling us what we already know and doing so poorly. The Ditrău incident, as it stands, would be better served as a documentary short or a news report on YouTube.
Narratively too the film is strangely conceived. Matthias doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the primary xenophobia storyline and is instead relegated to his own subplot, about his ailing father and troubled kid. It is his subplot that seemingly gives the film its name. At one point his father visits a doctor and gets an MRI scan or an R.M.N in Romanian - Rezonanță Magnetică Nucleară.
The two storylines never cohere and only awkwardly intersect in a forced manner. Dialog-wise several scenes are exasperating because despite a clear-cut situation, hardly anyone says what you would expect them to say in real life and this punctures the movie’s veneer of realism.
The much heralded film-making coup of the film is the climatic, raucous town-hall meeting to determine the fate of the Sri Lankans. In an undeniable feat of bravura film direction, the meeting is filmed in a single 17-minute long take (15-minute by our watch) with a static camera, dozens upon dozens of extras, and over 20 speaking parts. It is a scene of rare excellence, the kind you are unlikely to see in a Hollywood film.
The scene builds and builds but concludes anti-climatically as Matthias’ subplot collides with the main action, not organically but with an obvious sense of the storyteller pulling the strings. It must also be noted that despite the presence of some impressive long takes, much of the film uses standard film coverage, unlike many in the Romanian New Wave or even Mungiu’s older films.
Whatever quibbles we might have with Mungiu’s method, the acting is beyond reproach. Grigore and State are excellent and life-like in every moment. Judith State assumes center stage and performs a complex, meaty part with conviction. Even her scene of full frontal nudity is not gratuitous but shows a confident woman at peace with herself, professionally, emotionally, and sexually.
With such terrific performances from everyone in the cast, it is disappointing that we never get to know the Sri Lankan characters beyond them being nice and pleasant. Their being relegated to mere plot points is another consequence of Mungiu’s approach, othering these characters rather than foregrounding them.
As befits a modern European production, almost everyone in the cast performs in two, three, or more languages, and the film is played in Romanian, Hungarian, German, French, English, and Sinhalese. The different languages appear as subtitles in different colors at different times, though the color scheme isn’t consistent and can throw off the audience at times.
The film also has a striking look, bathed in the wintry hues of winter. The original incident took place in February 2020 but the film is set from December 2019 to January 2020, presumably to take advantage of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve as obvious time markers and to avoid having to show COVID-era face masks on screen.
Even with several superfluous elements, Mungiu still sees it fit to pack some mysteries into R.M.N. The pre-title sequence tracks Matthias’ son as he walks alone to school one morning. He sees something in the woods that causes him to stop speaking. What it is, Mungiu pointlessly withholds from us. He pulls a similar trick in the very last shot of the film where he suddenly resorts to some unexplained and ambiguous visuals. It feels like a sudden reversal from his pedantic approach from the rest of the film and exhausted audiences might cease to care.
Mungiu is clearly enormously talented. There is technical skill required in assembling a film which, as noted before, he possesses in spades. But with his last film Graduation (2016) and now R.M.N. (2022), he seems to be floundering, searching for subject matter that complements his film-making style rather than being at odds with it. Hopefully, we shall find him returning to his glory days once again which saw him be the toast of the international cinema scene with his masterful 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (2007).
The film enjoys its American premiere at the New York Film Festival.