“R.M.N.” – Magnetic and resonant [MOVIE REVIEW]
“R.M.N.,” short for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (the Romanian equivalent of MRI, Magnetic Resonance Imaging), long form for a brain scan, takes on several meanings. One of the minor characters is suffering from a tumor, hence his need for this neurological procedure. More globally, however, is the relevance to intolerance. Here, director Christian Mungiu, known for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” the Cannes Palme d’Or winning film about abortion, tackles racism and xenophobia, the malignant tumors he sees spreading in society.
Mattias, like most of the men in his Transylvanian village, has been forced to find work and opportunity in Germany. The work, like most employment open to foreigners, is backbreaking and degrading. Working at a slaughterhouse, he kills, guts, and saws off the horns of sheep, a probable metaphor for anyone trapped like he is. Hotheaded, he leaves his job abruptly when he attacks his boss for denigrating him and calling him Roma. Roma is the new global word for gypsy, a term adopted by the EU to try to mitigate the negative connotation of a people thought to be dirty, cheaters and thieves. But in choosing that name, the West more closely associated the Roma population with Romania, making it easier to slur against and categorize the people of that country. In fact, the actual term is Romani, even closer to the name of the country. No greater insult could have been leveled at him.
Mattias hitches his way back home to his village. Prior to his assault, he had received a disturbing phone call from his wife about their small son. On the way to school, he had seen something in the woods that left him terrified and, quite literally, speechless. Disdainful of his wife and worried that his son is being coddled unnecessarily, he feels the need to take over his upbringing. Injecting the toxic masculinity of so many men like him, Matthias’s solution is to force his very young son to walk on his own through the dark woods and face his demons. Given that this is an area full of bears, the son, Rudi, has reason to fear, something his mother understands. As this is a film filled with metaphors, the bears in the woods may not be the bears that are to be feared.
Mattias, the primary focus of the film, is framed as the prototypical citizen of this village, a seemingly benign town of Germanic architecture full of medieval-looking turreted buildings and a classic spired church reflecting the Germans who originally settled the area and left in the 70s, forced out by President Ceausescu, the reviled and repudiated Communist premier, overthrown and executed in 1989. Unemployed, like the others, and unapologetic, Mattias views himself as a conquering hero, defending his masculinity and the honor of the town. But other than an interest in exerting control over his child, what he really wants is to woo back his former mistress, Csilla. That they were ever a couple is a question left inexplicable; in metaphorical terms, they represent polar opposites in this community. She is the successful boss of a bakery owned by a woman; liberal, educated and compassionate. He is…well, he’s not.
Times are tough at the bakery. Unable to pay more than minimum wage, they have been unable to attract any of the locals even when they offer overtime. Still, no takers. Csilla and the owner, Mrs. Dénes, reluctantly contract with an agency that places foreign workers. Without additional staff, they will close. The two workers from Sri Lanka are a godsend. Quiet, polite, motivated, uncomplaining, they do the job that the others won’t. It’s not coincidental that they reflect the situation faced by so many men of the village forced to look to the West for higher paying jobs to support their families, where they too face prejudice.
An explosion of hatred is unleashed in the village, fueled by the passive position of the Catholic priest who does little to discourage the outrage. Transylvania, an area that has been handed back and forth between Romania and Hungary, has integrated poorly, although the residents describe themselves as ethnically diverse and a model of tolerance. The many Hungarians living in the village speak Hungarian, never even attempting to assimilate by learning Romanian. But together, they are justly proud of having expelled all the Roma from the area. Having ethnically cleansed this part of Transylvania from one blight, they are appalled at the arrival of these dark immigrants. That the EU has encouraged immigration and offered stipends to the outsiders is one more reason to seethe at what they perceive to be outside interference. It’s not just us against them; it’s the East against the West with the East always coming up the losers. This, they believe, is one thing they should be able to control.
As much as the townspeople rail against “handouts,” it is government assistance that allows them to resist working at the bakery, despite the fact that Mrs. Denes will now pay time and a half overtime. Soon protests, petitions, meetings and boycotts fill their days, previously without cause since the exit of the Roma, but now full to brimming, once again, with hatred. Rather than help the one remaining local industry survive, their mission is to expel the reviled, dark, foreigners whose dirty hands touch their bread. Even the local doctor proclaims that these aliens have a pathology and hygiene incompatible with their own. The parishioners demand expulsion while the workers at the bakery, all of whom are on the side of the gentle and conscientious immigrants, ask for tolerance and understanding. The bakery workers will join the unemployed if the enterprise is forced to close. There’s even an attack on the sanctuary of the workers by, and I’m not kidding, men wearing Klan-inspired hoods.
Mungiu’s most effective scene, filmed in one take, is the town hall meeting where the Mayor is trying to allow an open forum that only serves to solidify the prejudices of the majority. Their feelings of righteousness, supported by the priest, cannot be mitigated as they shout down any opposition. “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
A more nuanced approach to intolerance and self righteousness based on preconceived notions and systemic prejudice was explored in another Romanian movie, the unexpectedly hilarious and resonant “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn,” directed by Radu Jude. The surreal situation in “Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn” about a teacher’s private sex tape that is released on the internet and how the repercussions of this incident devolve into the hypocrisy of the accusers is, ironically enough, a more subtle dissection of underlying prejudice ingrained over generations. Quintessentially urban in nature, it still has much in common with its rural counterpart, especially as accusations escalated exponentially. The ugliness in “R.M.N.” increased until it was a white hot flame but one that was unsustainable, forcing Mungiu into a corner of absurdity. Without a logical ending to what was previously set up, he follows Raymond Chandler’s famous adage, “When in doubt have a man come into a door with a gun.” In this case, the gunshot ending the film is more a whimper not a bang.
The acting is uniformly good with Marin Grigore, Matthias, leading the way with his ever present leer. If there is ambivalence to his persona, it is deliberate. Crude and authoritarian to his wife and child, he shows some softening with his mistress if he thinks it will get him back to her bed. Matthias is a walking contradiction, trying to locate his strength, unable to remember where he left it. Judith State as Csilla is a well-developed heroine whose honor shows through. Mark Edward Blenyesi as Rudi is a wide-eyed marvel who, metaphorically speaking, illustrates the irrational fear of the “other” and the acceptance of trying to live together. József Biró, the priest, represents the collusion of the church in maintaining a status quo. One can absolutely understand that he was complicit in pushing the gypsies out the door and will be just as happy to see the Sri Lankans leave.
Mungiu does a great job at exposing the hypocrisy of his fellow citizens, he just has a hard time pulling it all together. He has a great beginning and a thought-provoking middle. It’s just the end that escapes him. But then maybe that end escapes us all.
In Romanian with English subtitles.
Opening April 28 at the Laemmle Royal.