No one seems quite sure what to make of R.M.N., the latest film by the Romanian director Christian Mungiu, which has arrived in theaters following its premiere at Cannes last summer. The title alone is confusing—R.M.N. may sound to English speakers like an ergonomic shorthand for the director’s home country (or perhaps for the Romani ethnic group), though a Romanian speaker would recognize it as an acronym for Nuclear Magnetic Resonance, the technology that produces brain scans. All of these interpretations are correct, and each adds a new layer of meaning to the film. Mungiu is alert to these kinds of cultural shibboleths, particularly as English becomes increasingly necessary in his homeland as the language of corporate bureaucracy and international order. In making R.M.N, it could well be that the director intended for each person to come away with a different interpretation—informed by their own background, nationality and political orientation—and this could in turn explain the frustrating inconclusiveness of the film. The brain scan analogy is not incidental: much of this movie is spent watching characters’ lives from the outside, trying to understand what’s going on behind their eyes.
Our perspective nominally aligns with Matthias (the glowering Marin Grigore), a Romanian migrant worker who, at the start of the film, is at a slaughterhouse in Germany. He gets in an altercation with his boss, who calls him a Romani slur, and soon hitchhikes back to the Transylvanian village where he was born. Americans will recognize this kind of community in themselves—the mine has closed, logging moved on after felling the legal maximum of trees in the area; and the local townsfolk, jobless and embittered by the desolation of global commerce, have started to turn on one another. The last large employer in town is a wholesaler bakery, which happens to be where Matthias’s old flame Csilla (Judith State) works, managing the accounts of a stressed and imperious boss. The two women are preparing to apply for an EU business grant, but they need to hire a few more employees to qualify. The job pays so little that even the unemployed reject it, but when a few Sri Lankan workers are brought in from Bucharest the response is immediate and vitriolic. Soon the whole town is embroiled in debate over what to do about the newcomers, with everyone forced to take a side. Except that Matthias can’t seem to choose.
What results is one of the most honest depictions of xenophobia and tribalism in recent cinema, as well as—perhaps fittingly—one of the least satisfying. Romania is quite the staging ground for such an ordeal: following its 2007 induction into the European Union, the country’s workforce has increasingly left to serve as menial labor for more developed nations therein—leaving its own towns and cities in search of outside labor in turn. It also represents a complex ethnic mélange, with large numbers of Hungarians and Germans in addition to over a million Romani. Talk of ethno-nationalism pervades all corners of this film, though no one can seem to decide who exactly is Romanian enough for it. Matthias, who’s partially Romani, endures a near-constant barrage of slurs about such ancestry from townsfolk who purportedly call themselves his friends. In private, he tells his son Rudi about the German side of their blood; their ancestors may have hailed from Luxembourg over seven hundred years ago. Such straw-grasping, and the complex of coded status and racial anxiety it contains, help us ever so slightly to decipher Matthias and his peers as we try to learn their capacity for bigotry or love.
Despite these clues, nearly every character in R.M.N. is depressingly opaque, never openly speaking their minds or disclosing their hearts. This clouded naturalism has the unhelpful effect of making the few righteous characters (namely, Csilla and the migrant workers whose safety she’s responsible for) feel one-dimensional and frail. Standing in for the EU’s presence in the town is a frilly-looking Frenchman (Victor Benderra) who’s been dispatched from on high to count the local bear population. His ingénue role as the other kind of foreigner gives the villagers a chance to chest-thump about Romanian customs, while dismissing his elite and effete reason for being there. His crush on Csilla also makes him something of a rival to the bearlike Matthias, whose inability to express himself, or even know his own mind, give him an anachronistic masculinity that the movie is clearly sympathetic toward.
Mungiu is a meticulous filmmaker, whose control over even casual interactions becomes clear in moments such as R.M.N.’s town hall scene: seventeen minutes of carefully choreographed disorder caught in a single static shot. Often, he leaves key details at the margins of the screen, such as when the tips of a shoe poking out of the lower-right corner of the frame serve to indicate the presence of a corpse. For R.M.N, this penchant for subtle orchestration may have gotten the better of the director, who sometimes tilts us in directions that turn out to be dead ends. On top of all the politics, the film is framed by a mystery: Matthias is lured back to his village with the news that his son Rudi has gone mute after witnessing something traumatic in the woods. Whether this was a suicide, a lynching or an animal attack is never quite clear, and all options seem anomalous in a town that keeps such a watchful eye on itself.
The final minutes of R.M.N, too, are something of an enigma: the camera follows Matthias through a series of dark rooms as he hunts through the village, without a clear indication of exactly who or what he is looking for. The effect is reminiscent of a first-person shooter. When I first saw this film in Cannes last May, viewers spent a good half-hour outside the theater speculating about the possible meanings of the finale, Matthias’s various motives, and the peculiar lack of allegiance he seems to show throughout. Subsequent viewings transform it into a hunt for clues, to help assemble a coherency one feels one missed the first time. I get the sense that the answer is hovering just out of frame—revelations that could have come down to posture, blocking, or a little more light. In any case, one departs with frustration, and even pity, for what should have been a better movie. R.M.N. is like an Olympic gymnastics routine that fails to stick the landing.
But the annoyance of such things doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be endured. I’ve thought about the movie a lot over the past year, with a sense that a single piece of the puzzle might yet slide into place. Coming to terms with its cinematic shortcomings and ultimately caustic political ideology has given me a better understanding of my own beliefs on those subjects; the film is a remarkable achievement of failure. It was only after learning about the double-entendre in the title that I noticed how many images of brain scans pop up throughout the film, included almost without motivation or cause. Mungiu seems to have successfully replicated in cinema the experience of trying to decipher such images: looking for specs of black and white in a sea of gray matter.