While it has been nearly six years since Romanian New Wave writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s last feature, 2016’s grim Graduation, his return with the riveting R.M.N. shows he is just as incisive a filmmaker as ever. The unassuming title is the Romanian acronym for “nuclear magnetic resonance,” both a literal reference to a brain scan that takes place in the story and a thematic thesis about what the film itself is setting out to do. It is a work of patient yet painful observation that exposes how a community of struggling people can easily turn hateful.
At the center of this is Matthias (Marin Grigore) who is returning home to his village in Transylvania. He had been away working in Germany but, upon receiving an urgent call, lashed out violently at his boss who treated him with hate just one too many times. We soon learn that he has a young son who is currently being raised solely by his mother Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu) while Matthias has been away. In the opening scene, we witness the moment when the kid saw something that scared him while going to school. What it is remains a mystery as he has stopped speaking, but Matthias is convinced this is his opportunity to turn him into his warped idea of a man. This fraught family drama plays out alongside a simmering sense of dread that threatens to consume the community.
We learn that Matthias was not the only one that has left as the village has fallen on hard times and there are next to no opportunities to be found there. One of the sole places to get work is a factory that is managed by Csilla (Judith State) who also happens to be a former romantic partner to Matthias. While she seems to be thriving in her position, the jobs that the factory offers are ones she is struggling to fill with local workers due to how little they actually pay. She then begins hiring workers from outside the community, specifically from Sri Lanka, to fill the gap. What starts out as a seemingly mundane hiring decision cuts through the rest of the story. Soon, this otherwise sleepy village that initially appeared benign begins to see its collective mask slip and reveal the hateful underbelly existing just underneath the surface.
Without tipping off too much of how it all plays out, especially as the film takes its time in building to a breaking point, the people we have come to know soon begin uttering sickeningly racist statements. What began as hushed chatter about a dislike for the outsiders turns to outright hateful conversations on social media and then begins to spill over into all the facets of this isolated society. Mungiu emphasizes how this menace is not something that comes from obviously maniacal figures, but from the everyday folks that the main characters run into. It is the guy watching the hockey game or singing along at a community celebration. They are the people we know and have grown up with. It creates a rather bleak yet ultimately truthful portrait of people who turn to scapegoating when they find themselves on the losing end of the system. While contextual to a time and place, it becomes painfully timeless.
This all culminates in a community meeting that serves as a centerpiece to the film and spirals out of control as soon as it starts. Playing out with no cuts, we hear a crowd rile each other up and grow increasingly convinced of their hatred as being the way to go. They are so loud and wrong that it would be comical if there wasn’t a creeping sense of dread woven through everything. In many ways, it ends up pushing the personal struggles of Matthias and Ana to the side as we begin to see there are much bigger problems facing the community. They come both from the inside and from the outside, though not in the way they think.
While never showy, it soon becomes clear how stacked the deck the broader economic system is against all of them. Each of the locals has become abundantly aware of this as they have seen any hope for their futures completely dry up and leave them struggling to salvage anything for themselves. This makes it all the more demoralizing yet no less accurate to witness them direct their anger at others who are struggling to make do just like them. Even when they are just on the cusp of understanding how they are all being crushed, they embrace xenophobia and hate as a way to give them a false sense of control. As the film observes the few voices of reason get drowned out by a growing mob, we see how the collective mind of the community has been so thoroughly poisoned that it is rotting to the very core.
There is something almost jarring in how seemingly detached Matthias, the film’s ostensible protagonist, is to all of these developments. While there are some pieces towards the end that don’t quite come together, his simultaneous anger at his own situation and the ambivalence to the injustice happening right alongside him still speak volumes. Without ever spelling anything out, it establishes the cruel cognitive dissonance that allows hate like this to take hold. For every grievance that the community has with how raw of a deal they’ve been dealt, there is a devastating sense of selfishness that only ensures the cycle of exploitation will continue.
Matthias, believing he can raise his son to survive as an individual, refuses to see the collective harm that is playing out before him. He is deeply unlikeable as a dad as his desperation proves to be a detriment to himself and his community, though this is exactly the point. His personal failings become intertwined with the politically perilous paranoia that can destroy those who fail to see the way fear can rot their minds. The way we witness the community at the heart of the story unravel is understated yet no less unsettling, showing how the urgent diagnosis of their depravity may come far too late to be of any difference.