Deep into “R.M.N.,” an anatomy of the human condition, this powerhouse of a movie gets deeper, creepier and unnervingly familiar. At that point, dozens of residents in a Romanian village have gathered for an impromptu town hall. Now, crammed together, the attendees — lovers, family, friends and neighbors whom you’ve come to know and sometimes like — clamorously voice their issues with some newly arrived foreign workers. The townspeople are suspicious, resentful, ridiculous and violently, explosively bigoted; they’re also terrifying.
I’ve called the movie an anatomy, but this scene is more of an autopsy. In some 15 tour-de-force, uninterrupted minutes, the writer-director Cristian Mungiu exposes the absurdity of this body politic, of these so-called concerned citizens, laying bare their grievances, prejudices and tribal affiliations. Some attendees speak (and shout) in Romanian, others in Hungarian. A French visitor — a conservationist for an NGO and a symbolic representative of the European Union — bleats a few conciliating sentiments but is scornfully shut down. The people have spoken and not on behalf of peace, reconciliation, democracy and human rights.
That’s unsurprising and bleak. But Mungiu’s touch is so deft and his filmmaking so enlivening, and the villagers so laughable (if also scary!), that you never feel dragged down or punished by the ugliness. Mungiu — a towering figure in the Romanian New Wave — is a tough, unsparing filmmaker, but he isn’t a scold or didact, the kind who delivers grindingly obvious life lessons about the horrors of other people. He’s interested in what makes human beings tick and why. But he’s a skeptic, not a cynic, and his approach is diagnostic rather than moralizing, which gives you room to meet his work on your terms.
“R.M.N.” is set in motion by Matthias (Marin Grigore), a hulking brute who stalks the movie like a threat. After a brief prologue, it opens with him working in a meat-processing plant in Germany. There, amid the baaing of soon-to-be-butchered sheep, he proves he’s an apex predator by viciously head-butting a hectoring manager who sneeringly refers to him as a Gypsy. As other workers raise the alarm, he flees and then catches a ride back to his Transylvania town, a village flanked by mountains that’s some 250 miles from Bucharest. He moves back in with his wary wife and young son, and pursues and beds a former lover.
More trouble begins at the bread factory where Matthias’s ex-lover, Csilla (Judith Slate), works, though in truth, as Mungiu suggests, the region’s problems likely started under the Soviet bloc or the Austro-Hungarian Empire or maybe the Ottoman Empire or when the Huns descended, or the Goths, and so on ad infinitum. After failing to hire locals — like Matthias, many villagers work abroad — the factory finds several Sri Lankans. The men are pleasant and industrious. When two enter a church, though, they’re instantly escorted out. “We barely got rid of the Gypsies,” a parishioner gripes, “now we start over, Reverend?”
“R.M.N.” builds on restless, bristling oppositions. After Matthias flees the German slaughterhouse, Csilla enters the story, and together they become its twinned focal points. They’re visually and temperamentally distinct, and while Matthias seems scarcely tame, Csilla is nothing if not civilized: She plays the cello, looks after the Sri Lankans, argues for tolerance: She’s even nice to the French guy. Matthias has rage; Csilla has desire. (The aching theme from Wong Kar-wai’s film “In the Mood for Love” serves as her signature song and sign of her horizons.) Both are often in motion — she feels unsettled, he seems disconnected — which allows Mungiu to introduce other characters and map out the sociopolitical terrain.
Mungiu is often on the move, too. He likes long takes and wide shots, which gives you plenty of time with the characters and ample space to see them in their respective, sometimes overlapping worlds. But because he doesn’t belabor his ideas, he also doesn’t linger visually. Instead, he adds layers of meaning into every tense image, like the one of Csilla fussing at her desk, which is set in front of a window that looks onto the factory floor. In the background of the shot, men and women labor while emblems of Csilla’s very different reality — a computer monitor, a photo of a dog, a figurine of a waving Japanese cat — dominate the foreground.
The tame and the wild roam through “R.M.N.,” nipping at its edges, adding visual texture and deepening its themes. It’s instructive, for one, that soon after Csilla stands next to a sign that warns “beware of wild animals,” Matthias re-enters her life. Whether he’s a beast or not, and whether nurture or culture are to blame, is something that Mungiu leaves up to you. Most of his characters may be undemocratic, but he shows no interest in bossing around his viewers. Instead, he builds the narrative incrementally and associatively, adding ideas, hints and bone-dry jokes: The title is an abbreviation for Romania, but also for magnetic resonance imaging, which is a nice metaphor for Mungiu’s analytic approach.
As opposition to the Sri Lankans grows more virulent and the story seems headed toward an inevitable conflagration, Mungiu continues adding layers and subverting expectations. “You know nothing about the East,” a local man chides the French guy at one point. “We here fought off the invaders.” The dialogue, with its stew of Romanian, Hungarian, German, English, French and Sinhalese, undermines the local’s nationalistic history lesson, though Mungiu has no use for the Frenchman’s programmatic E.U. cant, either. The ideals of the European Union are very distant here. Yet while “R.M.N.” largely takes place in Romania, as Mungiu makes forcefully clear, this is also a story that transcends borders, with a vengeance.