sun 19/05/2024

R M N review - ethnic cleansing in rural Romania | reviews, news & interviews

R.M.N. review - ethnic cleansing in rural Romania

R.M.N. review - ethnic cleansing in rural Romania

Cristian Mungiu's tale from Transylvania has bite but may not be his best

Viva hate: Marin Grigore as Matthias confers with Judith State as Csilla (centre) at an angry town gathering

If you think we’ve got culture wars, then welcome to Transylvania. This rugged Romanian region is home to a bewildering overlap of ethnicities and tongues – Hungarian, a bit of German and Romanian itself – such that Cristian Mungiu’s new movie offers subtitles in different colours to get the idea across.

In a backwoods burg full of shotguns, bears, people dressed as bears, worrying things in the forest and an awful lot of barking dogs, the Romanian auteur shows us how different folks can rub along quite well – up to a point when bigotry unfolds that would make Enoch Powell blanch.

Matthias (Marin Grigore) is a moody drifter type who has swallowed his love of sheep to earn money at a sheep abattoir in Germany. He returns home to his wintry Transylvanian town to find his wife and girlfriend barely speaking to him and his eight-year-old son not speaking at all, freaked out by some unfathomed terror in the woods. Rather than follow that mystery with any intent, the first hour of the film lays out a world of greater local harmony, centred on Csilla (Judith State), Matthias’s on-off g.f., who runs a cheery bakery with a fellow Hungarian-speaker. Priests abound, including Matthias’s ailing German dad.

So far, so (relatively) Trumpton and Camberwick Green. But Csilla hires three bakers from Sri Lanka and all of a sudden a terrifying ethnic cleansing movement erupts. Locals think that the visitors will pollute the bread by touching it, and soon firebombs and Klan costumes are readied to drive them off. When the late Milan Kundera wrote of the “inimitable beauty” that has marked the “revolts of Central Europe” as people defended “their threatened identity”, he obviously wasn’t talking about this kind of Central European revolt. “We barely got rid of the gypsies – now we start over,” says one ethnic Hungarian in the film.

Mungiu is a devotee of the no-edit style of realist filmmaking, with one-shot-only scenes. This can have limitations, but it comes into its own here in a continuous 15-minute take of a town meeting that brilliantly probes mob rule to its essence. It’s like one of those long political confabs in a Ken Loach movie but with everyone to the right of Attila the Hun.

There are certainly novel arguments put forth by the townspeople: one defends their racism by complaining that their relatives were racially abused in Germany – “See what happens when you’re tolerant!” Someone else had earlier logged the long tradition of “tolerance” in the town: they’d been free of ethnic strife since, oh, the 1990s. (The film is inspired by a real-life set of events in 2020.)

The sophisticated, cello-playing Csilla tries to defend her employees but faces losing her business if she wants to hang on to them. The Heathcliffian Matthias faces losing her if he follows his instincts and turns his back on the crisis. Both lead actors, State and Grigore, give immaculate in-the-moment performances but their characters are also a bit evasive and unresolved. Mungiu loves ambiguity, but maybe there just isn’t as much of that to be sifted here compared with his abortion film of 2007 (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), his exorcism one of 2012 (Beyond the Hills), or his bribery one of 2016 (Graduation), all of which were more unsettling to one’s moral compass. It’s harder to be ambiguous about hate crime.

The letters of the title are an abbreviation for a brain scan and so presumably are a play on initials; they may also stand for a slightly over-thought project at times. But Mungiu has superbly captured the tides and textures of an entire community, seamlessly merging professional and non-professional actors. He remains one of the great X-rayers of humanity in European cinema.

Mungiu loves ambiguity but maybe there isn't as much to be sifted here


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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