The title is not, in the end, some kind of code for “Romania.” But if it were, it would be appropriate: The enormous, troubling, intricately pessimistic “RMN” from director Cristian Mungiu, probably the pre-eminent filmmaker of the Romanian New Wave, is little less than a pared-back state of the nation. A microcosmic analogy for an entire shattered society boiled dry of its softening vowels, in which only the harder elements – the bigotries, the betrayals, and a surprising number of bears – remain.
Laid out in discrete scenes of astonishing clarity and density, with the rigor of their construction belied by the spontaneity of their presentation, the connections between the various strands are initially difficult to discern. Rudi (Mark Blenyesi), a little boy walking to school, comes across a sight in the woods that is kept offscreen, but that instills in him such terror he runs home and ceases speaking. Matthias (Marin Grigore), a worker in a German slaughterhouse, responds to a racist slur with stunningly instant violence, and flees into the night. Csilla (Judith State), who runs a small bread factory, discusses with her boss the difficulties of attracting local bakers at the minimum-wage salary they’re offering.
The temptation is to liken this fragmentary approach – a departure, incidentally, from the singleminded narrative dynamism of Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winner “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” and his Cannes Best Director-awarded “Graduation” – to the building of a mosaic. But that would imply the story of the film is one of convergence, in which the pieces will eventually settle to reveal some grand unifying design, where the trajectory is in fact the opposite. “RMN” is a slow-motion snapshot of a deeply riven community flying apart in all directions, as though some bomb, detonated years or perhaps even centuries ago, has never stopped exploding.
Matthias, we discover, is Rudi’s father and Csilla’s erstwhile lover. He hitchhikes back to his outwardly bucolic Transylvanian hometown, and demands access to his son from his estranged wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu). His sheep-farmer father Papa Otto (Andrei Finți) – possibly just a father figure, since it’s not clear if they are actually related – is ill, and soon Matthias will have to take him to hospital for a brain scan procedure called an RMN. Meanwhile Csilla, with whom Matthias rekindles his old romance, needs to fill five additional positions at the bakery in order to qualify for an EU grant, and turns to hiring migrant workers from Sri Lanka willing to work for the salary that locals, who can get better-paying jobs abroad, will not take. The arrival of the two men, and then a third, sparks a wave of racist indignation through the small town, bringing ugly sentiments to the surface of this pretty but increasingly sinister locale.
This barely scratches the surface of the issues raised by Mungiu’s intimidatingly intelligent, occasionally opaque screenplay. Most obviously there’s the fact that the community was fractured long before the arrival of the foreigners, and uneasy religious, ethnic, linguistic and cultural tensions, that may not interfere with day-to-day coexistence, require only the slightest tap to froth to the surface. Matthias comes from a Roma background that is referred to pejoratively several times, though any victim status he might claim is undermined by his sexism, his contempt for Ana, and the way he communicates his love for his traumatized son through survival skill lessons and harsh homilies. like, “You have to not feel pity. Those who feel pity die first, I want you to die last. “
By far the most sympathetic character is Csilla, rivetingly played by State. Like a significant minority around these parts, she is ethnically Hungarian, and speaks Hungarian when not communicating with Sri Lankan workers in English, or code-switching to Romanian as the occasion demands. (The English subtitles are color-coded according to which language they are translating.) One scene takes place during a German-language Lutheran service, but the town also has Catholic and Orthodox congregations. And there’s a clever inference of classist resentments too, with Csilla’s cultured lifestyle – she spends her evenings in her beautifully renovated house learning to play the “In the Mood For Love” theme on her cello – indicating a level of privilege and higher education denied to most of the population.
The Sri Lankans are not the only outsiders: A French researcher is in town to monitor the forest’s bear population. He too is a target for the community’s ire, as a representative of the ecological preservation movement that forced the closure of the polluting mine works nearby, losing many local jobs and contributing to the problem of economic emigration. That, in turn, has fostered a resurgent nationalism that manifests at celebrations and parades at which adherents dress in bear skins and helmets and proclaim their allegiance to Dacia – an ancient regional tribe valorized for their resistance to the Romans and lately claimed as a symbol by some far-right facts.
This is a complex film, so replete with ideas that one might expect the aesthetics to be of lesser concern, but “RMN” is almost absurdly handsome. Tudor Panduru’s photography makes superb use of a 2.39: 1 extreme-widescreen aspect ratio that obviously flatters the starkly beautiful Transylvanian landscapes, but would be extravagant for the talkier interiors, were they not laid out with such precise choreography, framing and attention to background action. Indeed, you get the feeling that, given Mungiu’s desire to demonstrate every side of every argument simultaneously, he would shoot in 360 degrees if the option were available. And during the film’s showstopping centerpiece – a 17-minute-long unbroken shot of a crowded, fractious town hall meeting with multiple speakers and multiple planes of action occurring simultaneously – he almost achieves an equivalent wraparound effect.
Papa Otto’s scans appear on Matthias’ phone and he scrolls through them, examining the massed growth in the old man’s brain slice by slice. It’s an easy metaphor for Mungiu’s approach with “RMN,” which is essentially a laser-tooled analysis of the diseased Romanian social organ, in which we can see the cancer of intolerance and inequity spreading stratum by stratum. It is not surgery. Mungiu does not intervene, and he does not judge. He does, however, despair – never more so than with an audaciously ambiguous finale that lends itself to about seven different interpretations, none of them perfect, all of them intriguing. Perhaps the easiest reading of that semi-surreal ursine ending – which suggests that even Cristian Mungiu’s astonishingly clear-sighted realism may be inadequate to the task of accounting for the bleakness and brokenness of the world right now – is that the era of human social structures has passed. Maybe it’s time for so-called civilization to exit, pursued by a bear.