Film Review: Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N. — Baiting the Beast Within

By Peter Keough

The Romanian director has crafted a grueling fable about hate, lies, and misinformation in a small Transylvanian town.

R.M.N., written and directed by Cristian Mungiu. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema and the CinemaSalem

A scene from Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N.

You have to root for Matthias (Marin Grigoire) at the start of Cristian Mungiu’s dense, bleak, and ambiguous R.M.N. A Romanian Gastarbeiter in a slaughterhouse in Germany, he’s just taken a break from butchering, decapitating, and dismembering sheep to take a call when his supervisor calls him a “lazy gypsy.” So he headbutts the guy. More power to him and good riddance to the scumbag!

But then it turns out that Matthias is not a gypsy himself (or is he? A friend later calls him a mongrel). Instead he’s angry because the German, thinking that all Romanians are Roma, mistook him for one. In fact Matthias hates not just gypsies but all the foreign workers who have been invading his small town in Transylvania, forcing the locals like himself to in turn become foreign workers in other E.U. countries. Pretty soon you suspect Matthias is not just a put-upon victim of an oppressive, racist, and exploitative capitalist system. He is also a bully, a proto-fascist, and a very confused man.

Who can blame him for the latter when the town he comes from is a hodgepodge of nationalities going back to Roman times? There are Hungarians and Germans (among whom Matthias counts himself) as well as Romanians. As for the actual Roma, they already kicked them all out. The farrago of indigenous nationalities that remain are now united under the sentiment that “We got rid of the gypsies and now we have to deal with these new dirty foreigners?” It’s a tenuous bond though, because each still tends to speak their own tongue or, as a last resort, communicate in English, the lingua franca of globalism (subtitles are supposed to be color-coded by language, though they weren’t on my screener).

Nor does Matthias find himself exactly welcome when he returns home after having to dodge the police because of the workplace assault. His father, Papa Otto (Andrei Finți), has been stricken by some neurological ailment. He has become subject to comatose episodes and apparent delusions about someone stealing his sheep (the film’s title stands for Rezonanta Magnetica Nucleara, the Romanian term for an MRI). His leery wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu) barely lets him into the house. His little boy, who had been traumatized and rendered speechless by something horrible he saw in the woods (an instance of the fairy tale sensibility that persists through the film), does not warm to his dad’s brutish insistence that he man up and go to school alone, unattended by his protective mother.

As for his ex-lover Csilla (Judith Slate), she’s a little chilly too; she welcomes the spirited sex from the ursine Matthias, but as a refined Hungarian who plays the cello (she practices Yumeji’s Theme from Wong Kar-Wai’s 2000 masterpiece In the Mood for Love) and sips red wine, she might find him a little on the lumpen side. Plus, she’s the manager of the local bakery (a stark establishment that looks much like the slaughterhouse where Matthias worked, except the aprons are white, not red, and there are no barrels full of sheep heads). The establishment has just ignited the repressed rage and resentments of the townsfolk by hiring three workers from Sri Lanka. Though the new hires are hardworking family men like themselves (one of them is even Catholic), the townsfolk (including, covertly, Matthias), mobilize a campaign of hate with online death threats and a petition to get rid of the intruders.

Like most of the directors in the Romanian New Wave, Mungiu favors mise-en-scène over montage, shooting long takes in an ominous viridian-tinted palette. The viewer is asked to focus on and then carefully read an image rather than sit back and let rapid-fire editing do the work. The director takes his static camera strategy to extremes: he must be setting some kind of record with his tour-de-force rendering of a raucous meeting in which the community discusses the foreign worker problem. It runs some 17 minutes, uncut, from a single stationary camera, a barrage of hate, lies, and misinformation that’s like being stuck inside a Twitter storm of toxic MAGA delusions.

It also underscores the self-righteous, self-serving hypocrisy of those who, like Csilla and the bakery owner, argue for the rights of the foreigners but who hired them, at least initially, not out of some activist altruism but because they worked for minimum wage and helped fulfill a quota for an E.U. grant. Yet, in the midst of all this chaotic rage and bad faith, Mungiu – and the viewer – instead are focused on the mini-drama at the center of the frame. Matthias is trying to force Csilla to hold his hand. She refuses. This is making the political personal indeed.

A deus-ex-machina of the most morbid kind interrupts these proceedings, suggesting that whatever Matthias’s son saw in the forest might have been an instance of foresight. It also interrupts Mungiu’s realistic narrative. After some preliminary scenes, Matthias begins wandering, shotgun in hand, through the labyrinth of the village, now a dreamscape of anxieties, delusions, paranoia, and specters of his own rage and fear. It reminded me of the ending of Kihachi Okamoto’s The Sword of Doom (1966), in which a cursed Samurai wages endless battle with phantom enemies who are the projections of his own pathological soul.

Peter Keough writes about film and other topics and has contributed to numerous publications. He had been the film editor of the Boston Phoenix from 1989 to its demise in 2013 and has edited three books on film, most recently For Kids of All Ages: The National Society of Film Critics on Children’s Movies (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019).


  1. tim jackson on May 6, 2023 at 2:17 pm

    Sounds like another must-see for Cristian Mungiu – thanks for the heads up. It is not at our local Landmark Theater and is only in Salem. It may be worth the drive. It’s been years since 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days or Beyond the Hills. The review sounds like we’re put through another Mungiu wringer with the bonus of a ‘ fairy tale sensibility’. Wonderful!

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