Cristian Mungiu likes to take his time.
In terms of his craft, the Romanian filmmaker behind the Palme d’Or-winning “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” opts for long, unbroken takes, building out tension as his camera stubbornly refuses to cut away. In terms of his career, he works at a measured clip, delivering a new project on average every five years.
And in terms of his latest effort, the dense and foreboding “R.M.N.,” which premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday, that means putting his pieces on the board at an unhurried pace, weaving a tapestry that takes nearly half a runtime to reveal the full intricacy and artistry of its construction.
At first we struggle with the pieces of this puzzle: Who is this man in Germany who flees his worksite after one racist taunt too many? What shocking sight does this child see when traipsing through a forest? And why oh why are we spending this long in an industrial bakery watching the two managers fill out EU grant applications?
Soon enough the corners come together and the shape becomes more clear as the part-Roma, part-German Matthias (Marin Grigore) returns to his native Transylvania town either to make amends with his estranged wife Ana (Macrina Barladeanu) or, failing that, to rekindle the flame with former mistress Csilla (Judith State). By way of filial duties, Matthias also has to deal with an ailing father (whose need for an MRI — RMN in Romanian — gives the film its title) and a son too shell-shocked by that unknown forest sight to speak.
But the film is just as much Csilla’s story, following the native Hungarian as she carves out a comfortable middle-class existence, devoting herself to her EU-assisted startup and sacrificing whatever personal projects she might have in order to gain affluence in a post-industrial town whose long-shuttered mine has left both water source and the hearts of the men who lost their jobs poisoned for good.
Even as the “who” comes sharper into focus, we still can’t quite crack the “why.” Why do we follow Matthias through a seemingly aimless series of encounters as he and his fellow townsfolk debate the finer points of Romanian history? Why do we spend so much time with Csilla as she posts a series of job listings (“Don’t mention the salary,” advises her boss) on every door in town? And why the urgent need to underline every character’s particular ethnic background?
The answer — call it a skeleton key — comes at the one-hour mark upon the arrival of three Sri Lankan migrants to fill the still-vacant posts. With them comes a new bubbling of xenophobic zeal as ugly as it is darkly and comically ironic, as it slowly but surely unifies the town’s erstwhile warring Catholics and Lutherans and native Hungarians and ethnic Roma around a new and dangerous Other.
Whereas up until now Mungiu constructed his films around singular experiences (imagining the pursuit of an abortion under Ceaușescu’s oppressive regime or a father’s attempt to serve his daughter by selling his soul one piece at a time as moral and ethical thrillers), with “R.M.N.” he takes a wider view, diagnosing an entire town (and the larger culture it represents) with a cancerous brain rot. Though he pulls no punches in skewering the blind and hypocritical hatred of a townsfolk who — nearly to a person — have at one point been economic migrants themselves, nor does he offer any easy liberal pieties to soothe the mind and ease the bitterness explored.
With bleak serenity of a man who has peered into the abyss and responded with a smile, the filmmaker offers no answer or easy way out to the intractable, and perhaps foundational, human capacity for hate than with his own virtuosic talent. As if every element of the first ninety minutes were nothing but a prologue, Mungiu orchestrates an unbroken 17-minute sequence, set at raucous town meeting, that crystalizes his film’s larger intent.
While Matthias and Csilla work through their own domestic drama in the foreground, the film’s full cast bickers and belies the full spectrum of human folly around them. It is all at once a payoff for all that has come before, a thesis statement for the larger film, and a marked reminder of Cristian Mungiu’s gifts as a filmmaker.
“R.M.N.” will open in US theaters later in 2022.