R.M.N. (2022), directed by Cristian Mungiu [4/5] - HIFF
Updated: Nov 25, 2022
How to Make a Political Film...
Cristian Mungiu first made waves in the international festival circuit with his political film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days which won the Palme d’Or award in 2007, the highest prize awarded at Cannes. Many consider it political because it portrays the moral consequences of outlawing abortion, yet the political nature of 4 Months is most effective in capturing the psychology of individuals in 1987 Romania under Ceaușescu’s repressive regime. The story follows two university students Otilia and Gabriela as they seek out an abortion from a black market doctor, a procedure that could land them in prison under the Communist rule. As documentaries like One Child Nation and The Exiles have shown for China’s autocracy, Mungiu shows how the mind grows accustomed to even the most unreasonable forms of political oppression when people relegate questions of a “just” life to questions of practical survival under the Party's parameters. I wrote a novel titled Bellwether that takes place during the events of the film in Bucharest and I was struck by how deftly Mungiu captured life under Ceaușescu.
One character in 4 Months mentions that it’s a good idea to pursue a university degree in tech because the state won’t send such a person to the brutal countryside where they’ll be “buried” in “some godforsaken village.” Another mentions that his mother has to wake up very early in the morning to cook because the gas is turned off after 8AM; Mungiu chronicles the breakdown of basic services and the rise of the black market trade of Kent cigarettes, cosmetic items, soap, and VHS tapes. Stray dogs and Dacia automobiles patrol the drab streets where electrical blackouts are a daily occurrence and everywhere Party officials carry a bureaucratic entitlement that thrives on ID badges and red tape to control the scope of people’s interactions (a great satire of these bureaucrats can be seen in Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin).
Mungiu never shows the wiretapping of phones or the violent suppression of dissent carried out by the secret police, Ceaușescu’s Securitate, like other political films have famously done (Pontecorvo’s 1966 masterpiece The Battle of Algiers comes to mind with soldiers kicking down the doors of their colonial subjects to the tune of Morricone’s brassy, charging score). But Mungiu doesn’t have to show bullets and interrogation rooms. Instead he shows dinner parties and passengers on public transportation and dorm room social dynamics. He shows how a hermetic environment filters thought about what is acceptable and reasonable to expect from one’s state. He shows an invisible, interior totalitarianism. It’s perhaps unexpected that a film so explicitly about political control of one’s body remains a testament to political control over one’s mind.
This year Mungiu returns to capture globalization and Europe’s migrant crisis with a film set in modern Transylvania. Named after the Romanian shorthand for brain radiology imaging, R.M.N. (2022) follows the story of Matthias, played by a sympathetically stoic Marin Grigore, as he returns from working abroad to find his village in uproar over three Sri Lankan employees hired at the local bakery. To make matters more complicated, Mattias’ lover runs the bakery and advocates for the immigrant’s right to stay while Matthias’ hometown buddies rabidly oppose the immigrants for “hygienic,” ethnic, and cultural reasons and want them sent back. Meanwhile, Matthias’ elderly sheepherder father draws near death and his young son and ex-wife resent his absence to work abroad in Germany.
Again Mungiu has his finger on the pulse of Romanian life. Freed from the Communism of Ceaușescu since the 1989 Revolution, rural Romanians today, especially those in the towns of Transylvania, fear not repression but replacement. Last year, over 600,000 asylum seekers applied to the EU from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan,Turkey, and Bangladesh. In 2020, the largest cohort of asylum seekers to Romania emigrated from Afghanistan (2,400 out of 6,000 or 40%) while many Romanians emigrated to Germany. A similar trend saturates headlines in America, although the migrants are coming from Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador instead of Central Asia. This has led to the popularity of white nationalists and Groypers like Jared Taylor who borrow lines from Pat Buchanan’s The Death of the West to sound the alarm on the “ethnic immigrant invasion,” the so-called Great Replacement Theory.
In Romania, the migration issue is only exacerbated by an economic one, which Mungiu hints might be the real source of the xenophobe’s aggression: a material conflict communicating itself in racial terms. Several scenes show Csilla, played fiercely by Judith State, attempt to hire local Transylvanians for the bakery only to be met with disinterest in the low pay. She posts flyers, tells friends, and fills out extra EU paperwork to try to fill the positions. It’s not until much later in the film when none of the Romanians have taken the job that Csilla hires the Sri Lankans on a work visa. When the town gathers in the hall with the mayor to voice their anger, the xenophobes attack Csilla for not hiring locals and attack her partner at the bakery for owning a fancy new Mercedes in the same breath.
While R.M.N. is interested in the psychology of these fear mongers, the film never lectures the audience or treats the xenophobes like laboratory subjects, instead showing a raw portrait of their prejudices, anxieties, and acts of discrimination and violence. “It’s the need of art and film to tackle things which have become taboo now in society,” Mungiu told the audience after the screening at the Hamptons International Film Festival in October 2022. The story of R.M.N.’s town, after all, is based on the true events of the 2020 Ditrău xenophobic incident. Mungiu expanded by saying that globalization comes with a lot of side effects and the rhythm of this change is too fast for some communities. “Some people need more time,” he said. Importantly, he wanted to show why people make decisions like this without being judgmental, without scolding people’s natural tendency to consider the “other” a potential threat.
With R.M.N., Mungiu represents a decisive stance on the nature of political films and political art more generally. Perhaps we think that it is the role of the artist to stand-up for the more enlightened point of view (whatever is considered enlightened in that time and place in history, which of course is in constant flux) and use his or her art to bludgeon the backwards point of view, to curb our more base or shortsighted impulses in favor of a long-term altruism. In a Nietzschean sense, this frames the artist as the antidote to master morality, to the idea of “might is right,” and makes them an underdog sympathizer, a sort of moral referee adjudicating over the conflicts of our time with stories and tidbits of wisdom for “the little guy.” This thinking has spawned a whole sub-genre of tearjerker Oscar bait films that take aim at prejudice in all forms and champion the victimized.
Yet this moralizing often fails in a dramatic sense. The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael considered Alain Resnais' 1959 anti-atom bomb film Hiroshima, Mon Amour a liberal soap opera that makes one “feel as if you’re in church and need to giggle.” Kael speaks of the film's forced artistry, seriousness, and yearning to "sell peace." She refers to one character in Hiroshima who is supposed to represent the world conscience by writing that he brings "an unsuitably bland, professionally sympathetic, and upper-class manner to the function," a fitting summary of the high-minded attitude that leads many films like Hiroshima astray (a far better attack on the absurdity of the nuclear bomb would come 5 years later in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove). In its worst deliveries, this soap opera sensibility is paired with a self-important smug tone that alienates audiences who feel they are being fed their ethical peas and carrots, as was the case with the disastrous Don't Look Up (2021).
Does this mean a political movie should never take a moral stance? Surely one of the strengths of the medium is its ability to inspire us to receive the world with all its music and vibrance, to awaken us to things we had neglected, to make us envision a better reality. One of my all time favorite films, Elem Klimov's Come and See (1985) is the most resounding attack on fascism and militarism that one can imagine, yet it does so without a single line of moralizing dialogue or self-important virtuosity. Like Mungiu's films, it plainly shows the tragedy of evil, heightened by the film's brilliant manipulation of formal elements, and spares us the lecture, allowing the viewer instead to burden a sense of moral responsibility that will follow them after the screening. The same can be said of John Ford's 1940 The Grapes of Wrath.
Mungiu knows that whatever his beliefs may be on the migrant crisis, he has to argue his political message in visual terms. In the town hall scene, Mungiu writes even his unlikable xenophobes and racists with a strong voice and a sense of self-righteousness as they communicate their fears of losing their traditional culture and being replaced by a foreign people. Yet when the xenophobes toss a Molotov cocktail into Csilla’s house and set her dining room ablaze, Mungiu makes their ignorance palpable without calling them deplorable. The images of Csilla’s horrified face and a Sri Lankan man scurrying for a towel to put the fire out in his host’s home communicate infinitely more about the message of the film than any lecture on accepting others and having a worldly perspective. Like Pauline Kael, Mungiu knows that when an audience is supposed to feel virtuous for watching a film, the story is a fabricated experience, a glimpse more into a progressive psyche than the real world.
In the discussion after the movie at HIFF, Mungiu explained the closing sequence, a dream-like Midsommar-esque scene of people in bear costumes in the woods, without undermining the film’s ability to speak for itself. “We are a mixed breed, and there is a side of us that is emphatic and tolerant and affectionate and another side which is instinctual and animalistic,” he told the audience. “We are animals and we are very violent and unreasonable animals.” The ending speaks about Matthias’ internal conflict, his dual nature between the dark forest of his subconscious (his Darwinian, tribalistic urges) and the other world of light, affection, and music. Mungiu said, in a very unpretentious way, that the film is not about him but about you. “You have to think about making this choice and you might be surprised when your animalistic side pops out first, as we can see in the war now.”
Mungiu also warned of the side effects of political correctness which prevents people from saying what they think but importantly doesn’t change what they think. He argued we need to let people express themselves and then change things more profoundly, otherwise many will continue being surprised when people vote and the results are different than what was discussed. Like 4 Months’ brilliant ability to show the Communist regime’s psychological manipulation of the individual, R.M.N is able to capture an anxiety felt in modern Europe about what once was thought to come hundreds of years in the future but which will now arrive in the lifespan of today’s children.
What does this political film show? To Mungiu, the film explores how we don’t know what to tell our children about what is useful anymore. The film is about a moral crisis and about how we increasingly have doubts in the postmodern world (as opposed to a 20th Century modernist world) about the best way to organize society. Are people entitled to their homeland even if it means excluding others? What makes a culture proprietary? Where do people go if their homes are being ravaged by war and dictators? Just as protagonist Matthias and his village is left unanswered, it might be impossible for any work of political art to answer that with certainty. But with R.M.N., Mungiu charts his course with raw, visual storytelling (instead of liberal soap opera sentimentalism) and an attention to the nuance of issues that is rare in artists today.