Romanian director Cristian Mungiu returns with a superb social realist western with its finger on the erratic pulse of Europe.
If Europe were a person, it would be in dire need of emergency medical attention. So says Romanian New Wave lynchpin Cristian Mungiu, whose quietly scathing and precision-tooled new work administers an extremely thorough examination of the diseased patent, but comes to no clear prognosis about its chances for survival. The clue is in the title, which is the Romanian acronym for MRI.
In fact, it does end up suggesting that we, as a society, might do well to take some time out and ponder whether the howling rage that has become valuable political currency in the contemporary world may be causing more problems than it is in locating rational solutions.
The film opens, as all films should, on a massive headbutt, as perpetually unsmiling man-hulk Matthias (Marin Grigore) takes violent umbrage when his boss at a German border-town abattoir refers to him as a “Lazy Gypsy”. We later discover that his anger was couched in a recent and successful purge of the Roma population from his dinky Transylvanian village, and even though he’s a man who tends to keep his political views closely guarded, that comment clearly hits a raw nerve.
Mungiu’s intimate and intricate drama takes in questions of dyed-in-the-wool provincial bigotry and the ways in which it spreads like a virus through digital and interpersonal means. Yet this is absolutely not a polemic, or a cinematic plea for a softening of attitudes, as the director is primarily interested in weeding out the root cause of this dangerous shift in civic understanding.
This is where Csilla (Judith State) comes in. She is the general manager at a local bread factory and who needs additional labour for the busy Christmas period, but opts to look beyond Romania’s borders and, indeed, the little village for anyone who would accept their measly wage terms. Csilla and her Mercedes-driving boss attempt to sell their ploy to locals as a boon for diversity and claim to be squeaky clean when it comes to EU employment law, but the folks are having none of it. And how do you argue with someone who believes that Sri Lankans (the ethnicity of the newly hired bakers) don’t wipe their asses and touch the food with their dirty hands?
The burn is slow and the cumulative impact is immense as Mungiu spends a good hour moving all his pieces into position before thwacking us with an explosive town meeting of the sort that, in bygone days, would’ve given the political green light to the Final Solution. Csilla believes that peaceable means and rational conduct will win the day, as she attempts to dismiss the problem as a small mob of drunken extremists. Her tone changes when they turn up at her cottage with firebombs and Klan masks.
With RMN, Mungiu gives us what feels like a contemporary western in the John Ford mode, where a lone, morally righteous hero must protect the oppressed, grease the cogs of capitalism and Christianity and gently teach the villagefolk the collective error of their ways. With its strong female heroine and male lead who’s nudged to the side in the second act, it even feels a lot like a riff on Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar.
And like so often in these western movie, the hero has her own demons to deal with. It all ends on a howl of despair as Mungiu, finally, decides to muffle the objectivity for a moment and offer his provocative and ambiguous take on the paradox at the centre of the film. Guaranteed you won’t know what it means and you absolutely won’t see it coming. So it’s another very special film from this exceptionally gifted and thoughtful (and extremely angry) director.
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Published 22 May 2022
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