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Romanian auteur Cristian Mungiu is a master of the slow-burn drama. His careful cinematic style — using wide master shots and long takes, allowing the action to play out within the frame without edits — is put to service in exploring complex, hot-button social issues — abortion in his 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, state corruption in 2016’s Graduation — with a calm, almost scientific precision.
Mungiu’s latest, R.M.N., takes this scientific approach literally. The title is the Romanian acronym for an MRI, which one of the characters receives in the film, and the movie, which hits U.S. cinemas on April 28, is Mungiu’s cinematic brain scan of his country, revealing the layers of illness — racial, social, political, and above all emotional — buried in the national psyche.
The plot, inspired by real events, takes place over the Christmas holidays in a small village in Transylvania. Matthias (Marin Grigore), a slaughterhouse worker, returns home from Germany and rekindles a relationship with old flame Csilla (Judith State), who manages the local bread factory. But the arrival of new factory employees from Sri Lanka disrupts the community. Tensions build as the locals —most of whom are actually Hungarian, an ethnic minority in the country — debate whether they should drive the foreigners out, as they did, several years previous, with the Romani families who used to live there.
For Mungiu, R.M.N. is an attempt to understand racism, xenophobia, and the rise of right-wing populism, from the inside: By looking, listening, but not judging, the people who spout heinous views. “You can’t start hoping to cure a public attitude until you name it and are willing to talk about it, to understand why it is happening.”
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.
The so-called Romanian New Wave had already started by 2007 but it really blew up internationally after you won the Palme d’Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a film that took not just your career, but sort of the entire movement, to a new level. 16 years on, how do you think the focus of Romanian cinema has changed? From an outsider’s perspective, it seemed the first wave of films was dealing with the communist period of Nicolae Ceaușescu. The new films from Romanian, including your latest, R.M.N., seem to be more concerned with current-day events.
Well, I don’t think that we were speaking, even then, about communism in particular, I think that we were at that age, when you revisit your adolescence or, you know, your youth. And we were making films that had a kind of nostalgia for what we lived through. Of course, they had communism as a background, but we were talking about our experiences. And if you remember, Corneliu Porumboiu’s first film, the one about the revolution [2006’s 12:08 East of Bucharest], it wasn’t so much about communism. Cristi Puiu’s second film [2005’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu] wasn’t at all about communism. They were quite contemporary, they were speaking about the long-term effects of communism on people, and the way the country was shaped and the people were shaped.
I don’t think that the new wave got all this attention because it was speaking about communism. But mostly, because we were speaking in a different way, in a different cinematic way. I think it was a formal thing, which dragged this attention our way. This way of making films with very, very long takes, was deliberate. Behind the new wave, there was a lot of thinking about the limits of cinema as an art, and about its particularities. That’s why we were shooting in these long takes, not because we like master shots, but because there’s this integrity of time, that cinema can preserve, on the condition that you don’t use editing.
I think we were motivating one another to really think very deeply about cinema, to take this very seriously. There was no point at all for us in making popular films because, by that moment, the cinemas in Romania were gone, there was no audience whatsoever for us. So we focused directly on making films that would be important for the history of cinema, not for the present. And we felt the way you made a film is as important as the story that you wanted to tell.
I think the movement has evolved quite well. It’s brought some filmmakers into focus that really had a point of view on cinema and had something to say. But, like any wave, time passes, and even this novel style gets old and becomes sort of a norm. It doesn’t surprise anybody any longer. So now it’s important for each of these authors to reinvent himself and to find something fresh and new to say in terms of topic matter, and also in terms of style. That’s the fate of waves, what comes as a wave goes as a wave. And you know, there’ll be another wave coming, even if, right now, it’s not clear where it will come from.
But these filmmakers, these individuals, have survived. We were perceived as a wave because we all emerged at the same time, we were pretty much the same age, and we were the first group of filmmakers expressing themselves after the fall of communism in Romania. But now, so many years later, we see which voices are strong enough to continue telling something.
That’s the most difficult thing in cinema. It’s not difficult to make a film that can surprise people once. But to make the next film, and eventually, to build this kind of personal take on cinema, this is very complicated. And I think Corneliu was telling me at some point — he had checked —and, apparently, statistically, most directors make two or three films in their entire lives. So if you’ve managed to make two or three films that actually got noticed, that’s quite good.
The other thing which is good is that the new generation of Romanian filmmakers is deliberately trying to be as different as possible [from the New Wave]. Which is normal.
Where did the idea for R.M.N. come from?
It came from a real story. The real story is quite close to what you see in the film. There is this little village in an area inhabited mostly by Hungarians. And, you’d imagine, in an area inhabited by a minority, that the people would be more empathic towards another minority coming in. But they were not. From their perspective, it was: We don’t have anything against these people, but this is a very poor region, we have made a great sacrifice to stay here and try and grow this community, to preserve our traditions, and you —the owner of the bakery —have broken the rules by bringing foreigners into this community.
One of the reasons people behaved so badly, of course, was the color of their skin. But, it’s also true that when this scandal emerged in Romania, the wave of sympathy for these people was overwhelming. People and factory owners all over wrote and said: We’ll hire them, we’ll take them into our communities, they can work here.
I thought the story of this film was very, very relevant to the state of the world today. Even if it happens in Transylvania in Romania, I had the feeling that it speaks about the way we behave today about these very hot issues of xenophobia, and the truth. Ultimately, it’s a film about this huge distance between what we think and what we say.
I presented this film at Cannes last year and in a lot of other places and so many people came up to me and said: This could have happened in my country, with us as well. It’s just that people don’t dare any longer to speak about such issues in public. It was important to me to see if there is still enough freedom in cinema, that we can speak about the elephant in the room, about the sense that we all know that a lot of people think like this, but we behave as if they don’t exist. Unless we manage to tackle these issues directly, there’s no way of hoping that we can cure them. You can’t start hoping to cure a public attitude until you name it and are willing to talk about it, to understand why it is happening.
You have a very empathetic way of portraying all the characters in the film, even the ones who spout horrible, racist, or xenophobic views.
The most important conflict in the film, for me, is the internal conflict, not the external one, the conflict between the good part of us, that feels empathy for others, and the instinctual animalistic part in us, which makes us consider others potential enemies that have come to steal our world, our food, our horse or whatever. That’s fight that we need to try to win. But before winning it, you need to talk about it, expose it, see how much of it comes from your instinct and karma, how much of it is contextual.
One important step is to listen to the people who are displeased about what is happening today. Migration today doesn’t look like it did 1,000 years ago, when a bunch of people on horseback would ride over the hill. Now they come by plane and try to get work. But for many people, the feeling is the same: Here is somebody who doesn’t belong. It’s a consequence of globalization. And many people living in tiny, very traditional communities feel: I didn’t ask for this globalization, but I have to pay personally for decisions I had no say in. The speed of change is too great for them. They need more time. I think we need to have the patience to talk to them , to understand why they think like this, before branding them as sinners, xenophobic, or whatever.
In this particular case, the villagers were not, in their minds, xenophobic against foreigners. They thought it was alright to be xenophobic agains the local Romani. This is what they were trying to protect their community from.
This is why I thought the story was worth telling, because they did not see what they were doing as wrong. And, people don’t say this, but nobody really wants to live in a community next to the Romani population. After Cannes I screened this film in 30 different villages in the region, in small towns, and people agreed, in principle, that it’s good to be tolerant. But when things get scaled down to you personally, everyone would prefer to live on a street where there are no Romani people. There’s such a big gap between the principles we all agree on, and what really happens. It’s important to engage in this conversation and to see where these stereotypes are coming from.
You also point out the hypocrisy of the ostensibly “good” people like the factory owner, who is kind to the foreigners, but also, in a way, exploiting them for their labor.
Well, I think that there’s a tendency, particularly in cinema, to oversimplify things. There’s a tendency of thinking filmmakers should include their position, as citizens, in the films they make. This is precisely what I think we shouldn’t be doing. My position as a citizen on this issue is not in the film. I think films should bring forward issues that are important for society at this moment. But I also think filmmakers should abstain from pushing their own views on you. My effort was to try and understand why things happen the way they do, why people act the way they act, and to respect the integrity of the truth and the reality, in every way possible. Also formally, which is why I make this huge effort of shooting without cutting. But also ethically, the idea is that whoever you are, I don’t want to be the judge, I want to bring forward these people’s arguments.
But it’s true that in the end, there’s a lot of hypocrisy, even in the way the film was discussed. I’d have two kinds of Q&As: The official ones on stage talking to people, and the conversations I’d have when I left the cinema, where people would talk to me personally. Suddenly, they started really saying what they think.
And you can see what this hypocrisy does to us. In France or in Italy, you see the effects of this hypocrisy, how populists are exploiting it for their own benefit. There’s no point in trying to ignore what people think or claiming that they shouldn’t be thinking like that. The problem is not going to be solved that way.
That’s why we end up having all these big surprises when people vote. When the populist parties and the extreme right are successful, people go: “Oh my God, how is this possible?” It’s possible because you haven’t listened to these people, you haven’t engaged in a real conversation. A conversation starts when you listen to the other person. Before explaining to him that his arguments are not valid, you need to listen to him. If you prevent him from talking, if make all these kinds of rules, telling him “Shut up, that is politically incorrect, you can’t say that,” it won’t change what he thinks. And the moment he has the freedom to express himself, he will just vote accordingly.
I don’t think the film is polemic, but the conversation it has started has been very polemic. And it should be, because this is what cinema can do.
It seems many people now view art as an expression of the personal opinions or views of the artist. Has it become more challenging for you to say: This is my work, it’s not my opinion?
I choose to present the reality as objectively as I can. This is my position as an artist. I’m not following this trend of saying my own personal view and opinion is all that matters.
I think it’s more important to bring forward issues, personal stories, where you have to have an opinion, where you have to take a stand. That’s what Matthias understands, by the end of the film, that he can’t stay neutral, he has to take a side. You are responsible even if you try to avoid the situation. You have a personal responsibility. As a filmmaker, I’m trying to signal to you as a spectator: You have this responsibility. You can’t just say: I don’t agree with the filmmaker, I don’t have the same view. The issue is: What is your position? Do you dare to have a position and express it in public?
This kind of personal, critical judgment, is very difficult for people to develop today, because the Internet, all this fake news, this avalanche of information makes it hard to understand, hard to listen, hard to question yourself, and to think: What would I do?
Very often, people are so used to saying the “correct” thing, they won’t even acknowledge, in public, what they really think. It’s a kind of schizophrenia. This was the response that I got from so many people: This big difference between what people say publicly, and what they think, privately. I think it’s interesting in cinema to bring forward what people really believe, to show what they say privately when there’s nobody around. Because that’s the truth.
What was different for you in the making of R.M.N., then, stylistically, compared with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days?
The way I’ve told the film isn’t that different. My style hasn’t changed much. The principle I use for 4 Months, one shot per scene, is still the same. Here a lot of the scenes are shorter, the film isn’t just composed of very long moments. But then, because I really wanted to respect this style, I also have the longest scene I’ve ever shot in a film, about 17-18 minutes without a cut. What is also different is that I think I’ve become a master of my own style, so what I do now is to try and make sure the style isn’t visible. I’m trying to make sure that the style doesn’t distract you from really watching the story. Because finally, what matters is the impact of this story on you as a spectator. So I’ve tried to shoot in such a smooth way —every shot leads into the next —so that people don’t notice how the film has been made.
How did you compose that incredible, 17-minute scene, of the town hall meeting, where the two women, the factory owner, and the manager, are arguing in favor of the migrants, and the other villagers are getting more and more aggressive towards them?
In this case, it was easy for me. The long shot at the end of the film is almost a replica, a reenactment, of the real town hall meeting. It’s on the Internet. It was where the scandal started. The people in this small village thought this was a private conversation but somebody filmed it and posted it on the Internet the same day. And, all of a sudden, we had access to people saying what they actually thought in private, in public. I translated it —because it was in Hungarian —but I didn’t need to invent too much. You can just watch, and you notice and understand. It was important for me to present these people’s arguments, their point of view, directly. There’s something about a lot of the cinema of today, that I really, dislike, which is that it has a kind of politically-correct agenda. By this, I mean that filmmakers of all ages are talking about the important issues of the day, diversity say, but being sure that everything is presented in the “right” way, that there is a positive stance on how to tackle these issues. This goes against my idea of creativity.
Of course, these films should be done too, but for me, artistic freedom means expressing things in a personal way. So there can’t be just one point of view, one political perspective. There are a million other points of view that should be brought forward by art. I come from a country where censorship was very strong. Today, it’s difficult to speak about censorship, but I think there is a kind of positive discrimination, positive discrimination about very ethically-important issues. This positive discrimination comes from the bodies which finance films, it comes from the personal consciences of the filmmakers themselves. Everyone begins to agree on what stories should be told and how they should be told. But this is, in my view, against what cinema should be. Cinema needs to be creative and fresh. It needs to have a diversity of points of view. We have to have to strength to bear the political incorrectness of people we disagree with, and the strength to listen to all kinds of points of view. That’s where art’s true strength resides.
The scene before the town hall expresses this. The townspeople are coming out of the church. They start walking towards the town hall. By the end, they are marching in lockstep. The marching marks this transformation from being an individual with your own position and opinion, and being part of the group and conforming to what’s safe to think socially in a given moment. That’s why the characters of the two women are so important. They represent this need of talking about your own point of view, even if it is against everybody else.
IFC Films is releasing R.M.N. in the U.S. in select theaters on April 28.
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