Film, Film Review

REVIEW: R.M.N. (2022) dir. Cristian Mungiu

Now streaming on AMC+


In my undergraduate studies, I wrote a 15-page paper analyzing the racist rhetoric common to alt-right Twitter. The sheer number of hours I spent locked in that horrid corner of that horrid website still weighs on me to this day. My research even initiated a pessimistic change in my personal religious beliefs. The latest film from the Romanian New Wave’s best-known director, Cristian Mungiu, is the closest a movie has come to replicating that feeling of being an unwanton and unmoveable observer in a dark, monstrously racist alt-right space.

The film opens with racism. Matthias (Marin Grigore), a Romanian national, works in a slaughterhouse in Germany. A German co-worker derogatorily calls him a “Roma.” Matthias doesn’t like this and responds with the classic, honorable response to any form of bullying: violence, specifically a powerful headbutt. He then flees the police and returns to his hometown in Transylvania just before Christmas, where he makes a mild attempt to reunite with his estranged wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu) and their psychologically perturbed, non-talking child, Rudi (Mark Blenyesi). He makes a much more forceful attempt to repair things with his former flame Csilla (Judith State), the lonely owner of the local bakery and a decent hobby cellist (I didn’t even need to use Shazam to recognize “Yumeji’s Theme” from In the Mood For Love). Unable to find local workers for a few minimum wage positions, Csilla burns through the pretext of the town’s morality when she hires three Sri Lankans. 

The incident in Germany primes a sympathetic response to Matthias before the more insidious truth unfolds. Matthias’s violent response comes from his own racist logic. His Transylvanian village is extremely multi-ethnic, with a large population of Romanians, Hungarians, a smaller one of Germans, and a now forcibly disappeared population of Romas. As for himself, Matthias considers himself ethnically German, and his ancestors came to Romania around 700 years ago from somewhere “near Luxembourg.” Upon returning to the town, Matthias’s apathetic complacency to the townspeople’s threats to the new brown-skinned workers reveals his own bigotry and creates a demand for a reread of the earlier scene. He wasn’t upset with the racism; rather, the slur projects Matthias’ own racist images onto himself, a non-Roma person with a belief in German superiority. 

Like alt-right Twitter, Mungiu relates the masculine propensity to violence and the obsession with anti-feminine masculinities to racism and xenophobia. Ana threatens to take Rudi and leave if Matthias raises his hand at her “again.” He’s not a good husband, and he’s not the most sentimental or endearing of fathers either. He mostly just complains about Rudi’s “non-manly” traits and takes him on hunting trips to level up the child’s masculinity. (Over dinner, he barks at Ana for letting Rudi crochet.) In one of the film’s best scenes, Ana hosts the Sri Lankans at her home. They’re eating and having a lovely evening, taking turns turning their wine glasses into musical instruments, as a Molotov cocktail breaks their window and threatens lives. Ana opens the door and sees a small group of racists with various headgear to cover their faces. One of them wears a KKK capirote. Isolated from the American context, the pointy white hat functions purely as an empty (rather than historical) symbol of racism; this, somehow, makes the act feel even more intentionally knavish.

The film peaks near the end of its runtime in the 17-minute static shot inside of the local church as the townspeople debate on whether or not to expel the Sri Lankans. (The priest is one of the spokespersons for the ethnic bigots.) The camera sits in prime view of Csilla and her co-worker, with Matthias creeping in from the row behind them. It’s not as methodical as it is unflinching. For 17 minutes, a room of racists reveals their (proudly) worst-held beliefs, and the non-racist bakery owners have their own exploitation tactics revealed. For 17 minutes, the camera doesn’t move as a closed room of racists decides the (illegal) fate of the lone three brown-skinned people in town. The static shot ends in the only way it could: the arrival of violence. It’s surely one of the best shots of the year.

The film ends in a moment of displaced violence that many critics are calling ambiguous. Superficially, this is true. The violence is not the violence expected of the plot movement per say, though it’s fully from the world of R.M.N. I think a better read of the violence may be a symbolic one, an evil catharsis without the repercussions of hate crime.

dir. Cristian Mungiu
125 min.

Now streaming on AMC+, and available digitally and on demand

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