Two years ago, a town in Romania’s Transylvania region made headlines when residents resisted the arrival of workers from Sri Lanka. In ‘RMN’ the Romanian director Cristian Mungiu molds this diverse fait into a challenging metaphorical portrait of Europe.
In order to qualify for European aid, an industrial bakery in Ditrău, a town of 5,000 inhabitants in northern Romania, had to look for five additional employees in 2020. Because no one in the region was willing to fill the low-paid jobs, the management decided to bring workers from Sri Lanka. That went down the wrong way with many residents of Ditrău. The town’s pastor even filed a protest petition with 1,800 signatures.
- ‘RMN’ is the new film by Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu, who won the Palme d’Or for the abortion drama ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ 15 years ago.
- ‘RMN’ is based on a diverse fact about a town in Transylvania that reacts violently to the arrival of workers from Sri Lanka.
- Mungiu wants to examine the complex relationships and frustrations of the region. ‘RMN’ means something like MRI, the device for making scans.
- Mungiu also sees the film as a representation of the challenges in Europe in general.
- ‘RMN’ is a fascinating, ambiguous and often virtuoso portrait of a community.
A blatant example of racism, but the situation was much more complex. And not just because those Sri Lankans followed the example of so many Romanians: leaving their native region to earn more money in a foreign country. The setting was also more than symbolic. Ditrău is located in a part of Transylvania where many people of Hungarian descent live, a population group that is a minority in Romania. ‘You would think that such a minority would adopt a tolerant and open-minded attitude towards people in need of an even smaller minority. That turned out not to be the case,” director Cristian Mungiu noted.
Tensions and frustrations
He saw the incident as a perfect opportunity to broach much larger themes and to examine a complex situation. The title of his remarkable new film, ‘RMN’, also means something like MRI, a machine for making scans. Mungiu approaches the story from two characters. Matthias is a Romanian man who works in a slaughterhouse in Germany and returns headlong to his home in Transylvania when his young son has a traumatic experience. Csilla is a former flame of Matthias and runs the bakery that angers some of the residents by hiring foreign workers.
Around these characters, Mungiu delicately weaves all kinds of tensions and frustrations, from racism and sexism to nationalism and class distinction. Mungiu refuses to take any clear standpoints or draw conclusions, although he regularly highlights how petty and pathetic it all is.
“In the end we are doomed to live together,” he says. ‘You can’t change history. Take that nationalism. We will never settle the discussion about who the original inhabitants of a region are. In Transylvania, the longstanding conflicts between Romanians and Hungarians still exist, in various forms. Completely ridiculous and sometimes really funny.’
Mungiu immediately adds that ‘RMN’ is definitely not a story that focuses on a remote corner of Romania. The discussions, problems and excesses he cites can also be found in other countries. “It wouldn’t be fair to point the finger at Transylvania,” he says. “Xenophobia is not the exclusive fault of one ethnicity. We all have butter on our heads.’
Globalization has certainly increased tensions in countries such as Romania. Mungiu does not deny that this evolution has brought benefits, but the coin also has a downside. “We have more freedom to go where we want,” he says. But globalization has also created fear and uncertainty. Moreover, the changes are happening faster than smaller and more traditional communities can follow.’
The job of cinema and art is to talk about the things we prefer to avoid in everyday life.
This is particularly apparent during the (unparalleled) central scene of the film, a large meeting in the city’s banquet hall. Mungiu lets the discussion run for 17 minutes. Everyone talks in different languages at the same time. Yet you can perfectly follow what is going on.
The half-baked and politically incorrect arguments that characters make sound all too familiar. But that’s why we shouldn’t just brush them off, says Mungiu. ‘The job of cinema and art is to talk about the things we prefer to avoid in everyday life. Those arguments and clichés and lies exist. Political correctness and cancel culture will not make them disappear. We have to listen and enter into a dialogue.’
‘RMN’ hits theaters this week.