by Christie Robb
In Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N, Transylvania is a tense place. The landscape is bleak. The light is weak and casts blue shadows over the snow-covered ground. The people are lean and tense. But it’s not vampires that have them concerned.
It’s the European Union.
Many of the locals are working at exploitative jobs abroad while the businesses at home are struggling to find workers who are willing to labor for minimum wage. The EU will provide assistance, but only for certain projects. Parks can get funding, but forget money to update the sewer system. And they are willing to help local businesses who hire workers from countries out East, but only if the businesses can fill out the right forms.
When the local bakery hires three Sri Lankan immigrants after weeks of unanswered advertising for local workers, the town’s quiet desperation flares into xenophobia. Ethnic tensions going back generations erupt back to the surface.
Mungiu’s film allows the drama to unfold slowly. There is a wide cast of characters whose agendas and relationships overlap and clash in interesting ways. The most arresting scene, by far, is a long one, done in one shot, of a community meeting to discuss whether the town will vote to kick out the Sri Lankans. It’s ugly and full of recognizable hypocrisy.
Melodrama is somehow, miraculously, avoided despite topics including selective mutism caused by childhood trauma, tumors, suicide, ethnic cleansing, racism, the legacies of the Cold War, and toxic masculinity. But this comes at the risk of it being almost too cold and underwritten.
The two main characters are Mattias (Marin Grigore) and Csilla (Judith State). He’s a menacing former meat packer who has come back to town after assaulting his boss in Germany and is on a mission to toughen up his young son. She’s in management at the bakery, a classical musician, and a mother figure to the Sri Lankans. That the two have some sort of romantic relationship is a source of confusion that writer/director Mungiu doesn’t seem particularly interested in explaining.
The ending, similarly, isn’t especially enlightening. But, I suppose, dealing with the complex impacts of an emerging global economy on a struggling rural town, a straightforward ending might have been an odd choice, too.