June 6, 2023

Deep in “RMN,” an anatomy of the human condition, this powerhouse of a movie becomes deeper, creepier, and hauntingly familiar. At that moment, dozens of residents of a Romanian village have gathered in front of an improvised town hall. Now, packed together, those in attendance—lovers, family, friends, and neighbors you’ve come to know and sometimes like—loudly voice their concerns with some of the newly arrived foreign workers. The townspeople are suspicious, outraged, ridiculous and violent, explosively bigoted; they are also terrifying.

I’ve called the movie an anatomy, but this scene is more like an autopsy. In some 15 tour-de-force, uninterrupted minutes, writer-director Cristian Mungiu exposes the absurdity of this political body, of these so-called concerned citizens, exposing their grievances, prejudices and tribal ties. Some attendees speak (and shout) in Romanian, others in Hungarian. A French visitor – a conservationist for an NGO and a symbolic representative of the European Union – bleats some conciliatory sentiments, but is scornfully silenced. The people have spoken and not on behalf of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights.

That is not surprising and bleak. But Mungiu’s touch is so deft and his filmmaking so enlivening, and the villagers so laughable (albeit creepy too!), that you never feel dragged down or punished by the ugliness. Mungiu – a towering figure in the Romanian New Wave – is a tough, ruthless filmmaker, but he’s not a swear word or didact, the kind who gives obvious life lessons about other people’s horrors. He is interested in what drives people and why. But he’s a skeptic, not a cynic, and his approach is diagnostic rather than moralizing, giving you room to do his job on your terms.

“RMN” is set in motion by Matthias (Marin Grigore), a hulking brute who haunts the film like a threat. After a brief prologue, it begins with him working in a meat processing plant in Germany. There, amidst the sheep soon to be slaughtered, he proves himself an apex predator by viciously headbutting a frantic manager who derisively calls him a gypsy. As other workers raise the alarm, he flees and catches a lift back to his town in Transylvania, a mountain-flanked village some 250 miles from Bucharest. Moving back in with his wary wife and young son, he pursues and beds a former lover.