Cristian Mungiu exploded on to the cinematic landscape when his nervy backstreet-abortion thriller, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, scooped the Palme d’Or at the 2007 Cannes film festival. That win pushed Mungiu to the front of the Romanian new wave, the most exciting national cinema of the early 2000s, a moment when a series of deadpan, minimalist and socially wry films – including Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Cristian Nemescu’s California Dreamin’ and Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective – became international hits and award-winners.
Speaking in advance of the release of his sixth feature, the remarkable RMN – which translates as MRI – Mungiu recalls the sudden surge of interest. “Nobody really knows how life is here in Romania, and especially cultural life,” the director says. “There are still people believing that we speak Russian or that it’s very cold or that everything is explained by communism. This is ridiculous. We have a very long history, and there are lots of different people in the region. It’s quite a complex situation.
“So when we got this label it was useful, because the Romanian cinema didn’t have any kind of label before. It generated some attention for a while, and for 10 years everybody wanted to watch the Romanian films at the great festivals. Like any movement once that fashion moves on, it’s a bit more complicated, especially for the directors coming after us, because they needed to find their own identity. And it’s difficult for us to continue making films in the same way. Cinema is more about pure entertainment than it was 20 years ago.”
Mungiu has subsequently been decorated at Cannes for Beyond the Hills, a horrifying drama inspired by the Tanacu exorcism of 2005, in which a young Moldovan woman died during a religious ritual. Mungiu shared the best-director award on the Croissette in 2016 for Graduation, an escalating tale of low-level corruption in Transylvania, as a doctor attempts to finesse his daughter’s academic grades.
What was interesting for me was that even people trying to defend the foreign workers were very intolerant— Cristian Mungiu
Mungui returns to that region for RMN, a film that lays bare Europe’s hypocrisies around migration. The film features a virtuosic 17-minute town-hall scene in which various village locals speaking various languages – Hungarian, Romanian, French – furiously debate the presence of three immigrants who have come to work at the local bakery.
It was inspired by a real-life village meeting in Ditrău, where, in January 2020, more than 2,000 people signed a petition to push out three foreign workers. Mungiu was taken aback that a multicultural place could so lack in empathy.
“Before Covid started, it made it into national views,” Mungiu says. “A bakery from this tiny community in an area inhabited mostly by Hungarians in Romania, being completely out of workers, decided to open the community to foreigners because it didn’t have any other choice. Finally, some Sri Lankan workers arrived and the community reacted and positioned itself quite firmly against the use of foreign workers in the bakery. They had that town-hall union which is quite close to what is in the film. And somebody recorded this meeting and placed it on the internet. And from that moment onwards people in Romania were talking about it. What was interesting for me was that even people trying to defend the foreign workers were very intolerant.”
Prowling bears and a dark forest add mystery and a spooky, folkloric dimension to the film’s incendiary drama. The creepy woodland walks and a final appearance by the bears – we won’t spoil it – proved the biggest festival talking point after the film’s Cannes bow.
‘Tribal and isolated’
“If you try to walk in a forest at night it’s endless, and because there’s not too much light you can believe that there are dangers there even if it’s not necessarily rational. I associated this idea of the forest with the subconscious. Whenever you have a community which is surrounded by forest, they don’t follow the main trends of civilisation. They follow their own rules. They are tribal and isolated.”
Mungiu mostly chronicles the debate through the eyes of the ambivalent Matthias (Marin Grigoire), a migrant worker returning home from Germany for Christmas to his ailing father (Andrei Finti) and young son (Mark Edward Blenyesi). The Sri Lankan workers – Alick (Gihan Edirisinghe) and Mahinda (Amitha Jayasinghe) – have been invited to work in the bakery by his sometime lover, Csilla (Judith Slate).
“He’s certainly not what they teach you a protagonist is in an American film school,” says the writer-director. “He is not influenced by what happens too much. And I would say he’s not even progressing in terms of understanding the world. He marks out a difference in understanding about what film should be. I think that cinema should follow very realistic behaviour patterns. I don’t believe that people change their vision of life in two weeks’ time or four weeks’ time. He’s more of a witness to what happens. He starts having doubts and fears. Eventually he becomes aware of his dual nature and that the source of evil he feels might not come from outside but from his inner self.”
And everybody kept saying the same thing: in principle we do not have anything against Gypsies or Roma or foreigners or whatever, on the condition that they don’t live on our street— Cristian Mungiu
Transylvania is complicated by geographical, cultural and even mythological history, but for Mungiu these specifics speak to a larger European issue.
“Nobody talks to these people about what their real problems are,” he says. “The right-wing politicians that visit them every now and then tell them the economic situation is caused by foreigners. The other parties don’t engage in real dialogue with these people. So you have people telling a community what they want to hear and also a lack of people who are willing to fight against these popular beliefs.”
Mungiu toured Transylvania with the film, hoping to spark dialogue. The first stop was Ditrău, where it all began.
“I wanted to have conversations with people after the screening,” Mungiu says. “And everybody kept saying the same thing: in principle we do not have anything against Gypsies or Roma or foreigners or whatever, on the condition that they don’t live on our street. This is a hypocrisy for everybody. It’s easy to claim that people are welcome when they are integrated, but not when there are problems.”
RMN opens at the Irish Film Institute on Friday, September 22nd.