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Exploring Xenophobia and Ambiguity | A Conversation with Romanian Filmmaker Cristian Mungiu

Por Sandra M Ríos U
Twitter: @sandritamrios

"Matthias eventually learns something that we should all be aware of: that the source of evil in the world might be coming more from you than from the outside world and that the most difficult animal to tame is yourself."

In 2007, Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu won the Palme d'Or for his fantastic drama about illegal abortion, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," and since then, he internationalized his name. He became a recurrent participant in this festival, received more awards (for "Beyond the Hills" and "Graduation"), and even served as a jury member for the official competition, the CinéFondation, and the parallel section, the Critics' Week.

Seven years had passed since he directed a new film, but true to his philosophy of addressing topics that the world and human nature conveniently avoid, R.M.N. tackles xenophobia and how society assumes an ambiguous position when the issue of immigrants directly affects them. The film draws inspiration from a real case in a small Transylvanian community that escalated to the international sphere and caused quite a scandal due to the population's decision to boycott the local bakery for wanting to hire foreigners in their factory.

In this interview, Mungiu provides context for the film's story, which is directly related to the history of his country, its multiethnic nature, and diverse religious beliefs. Ironically, Romania has also experienced a significant migratory process of its inhabitants to other European areas. We also discuss his filmmaking approach, including the recurring use of single-shot filming, as well as the symbolism behind this story, which made its way to theaters after premiering in Cannes in 2022. The title refers to the uncomfortable brain examination known as nuclear magnetic resonance, which aligns perfectly with this film. While it doesn't offer concrete answers, it functions as an x-ray of our behaviors.

1. Can you tell us about the scandal that inspired the film?

In February 2020 a bakery in an area in Romania inhabited mostly by the Hungarian minority wished to hire foreign laborers given than most of the locals work in western Europe for bigger wages. This is how the first Asian workers got to be seen in Romania – they were a complete novelty. The local community protested against the arrival of such workers as their community was traditionally very ‘closed’ to anybody from outside (Romanians, first of all) since they were trying to preserve their communal spirit, religion, habits. The difference of opinions escaladed and resulted in this ‘communal town-hall meeting’ in which the locals decided to boycott the local bakery to force the foreigners to leave. That reunion was recorded and arrived on YouTube – the news spread and soon there was a national and them international scandal. The incident polarized people a lot, many supported the foreign workers, many others turned against the Hungarian minority, a lot (of all ethnicities) positioned themselves against migrants (even if Romania is a great provider of migrants in western Europe) and pretty much everybody unleashed a lot of hatred, intolerance and violent stereotypical judgements of all sorts.

2. When I finished R.M.N. I thought it was like a modern “Tower of Babel” story, you know, people living together and sharing a same space, but without understanding, putting limits according their believes, traditions and prejudices. Was it one of the intentions with this story?

The comparison with the Tower of Babel is unavoidable given that Transylvania is naturally a melting pot of ethnicities (because of its sinuous history). Historically speaking, people never tolerated naturally sharing their territory with others and this ‘tribal’ views became part of our DNA – we rather see the other as potential enemies and we focus on the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ than seeing what we have in common. The issue today is that globalization has made migrations easier and therefore big groups of people move from one place to another in search of a better life. Theoretically, given our humanistic education and the given the feeling of guilt of the westerners for the colonial period, we agree that people have this right but when this arrival of migrants happen right in our community, we start expressing doubts as often this requests an effort of adapting to the new situation while our natural inclination is to prefer what we know already.

3. R.M.N. is a very local story, but at the same it is universal, because, ultimately, we deal with the same human problems (anxiety, fear, cruelty, selfishness, intolerance) and political issues (discrimination, competitiveness, poverty, immigration), but what are some of those particularities in Transylvania you can share with our audience here, in a distance place like Colombia?

Transylvania is nowadays a western province of Romania, its name coming from Latin – Trans Silvae meaning beyond the woods. Along the history, Transylvania was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire which explains the communities of German and Hungarian ethnics and the variety of religions – you can reach as many as 6 different Cristian cults in the same area. In the last 200 years, the Roma population was brought in the region – as slaves or servants – but after they were finally freed, the preferred to remain nomad or to settle in abandoned houses. When the German ethnics chose to move back to Germany (a first wave in the 70ies when Ceausescu allow them to leave for a fee of some 5000 DM per capita and a second wave after the fall of communism when they were free to move to a more prosperous country with whom they felt related) their houses were occupied in great numbers by the Roma population – creating a lot of conflicts given the differences between cultures and standards of living. Historically speaking, Transylvania was always a territory where nationalism flourished due to the dispute over this territory between Hungarians and Romanians. Ironically, the only aspect on which both communities agree is preferable not to have Roma members in their villages.

4. The story could happen at any moment, but you have chosen to set it in Christmas time. It is like a horror story too. Did you have any specific reason to that?

Christmas is a very special period of the year, when family reunites, and people are encouraged to be more generous and tolerant – but Christmas can also be very depressive for people feeling lonely while the New Year’s Eve encourages different groups to celebrate together accentuating on the differences between them – and not on the resemblances. The beginning of the new year is always the moment of great decisions in which people feel more inclined to change dysfunctional things in their lives. Also, this period hosts a lot of ancestral mythical manifestations revealing man’s need to master nature but also his fears of the unknown – as the old dancing of bears – a way of fighting our fears.

5. R.M.N. exposes all the time the ambiguity in the villagers’ actions. We can see it clearly in the fantastic holy mass scene, for example. What can you tell us about political correctness that is so marked in the story? Is that political correctness turning citizens into hypocrites?

Unfortunately, political correctness only people are allowed to say – but not at all what they think or how they feel. It brings frustration to people who experience this policy as a form of censorship so when the time to vote comes, they will express their anger and frustration choosing often radical intolerant parties. Some sort of dialogue is needed and more honesty in recognizing that often people don’t share the most empathic and tolerant views and changing this is a long difficult process based on dialogue and education – while simply imposing the politically correct norms doesn’t bring any profound change.

6. We are constantly aware that something is wrong, and something will happen at any moment, like it happens in thrillers, but it is a drama. Could you talk about the tone and style of the film?

I am happy when the audience feels this way. I believe that even meaningful auteur films should be captivating for the audience – be thrilling, twisty, unpredictable, dramatic but truthful. RMN remains a realistic film, somehow layered and complex, speaking of many things from social classes and the end of democracy to our process of losing individuality when agreeing to become part of the mob. Stylistically, every other scene in the film is stages as in theater – one continuous action captured on film, without any editing cuts – so that the audience can experience is as a recorded moment of reality. The rhythm of the scene is internal and not the result of editing – which makes staging and directing a very complex process. All this is meant to offer the spectator the feeling of watching a documentary about how thrilling everyday life can be when you experience it from the eyes of the main characters who are in this limit situation.

7. Part of the suspense I felt was due to each scene was filming in one shot. How did you manage to film the 17+ minute scene where more than 25 cast members are reunited?

It’s a matter of choreography, coordination, perfect timing, rehearsed acting but also of adjusting the rhythm while shooting after each take, keeping what worked and eliminating what slows things. Basically, it’s the same process as for any other master shot (and for a while now this is how I am shooting my films – an attempt to record uninterrupted moments of real time with their ambiguous complexity) – only that it was way more complicated given the number of actors and extras. I had just one day of rehearsal and two days of shooting, so it was tough – also given that I had 30 tracks of dialogue. There were two decisive moments: when I decided to juxtapose the first 7 pages of the scene with the next seven and to train people how to speak at the same time (as this is the characteristic of cush a moment) and then when I encouraged the extras to really express themselves, not just to pretend doing so (for matters of sound recording). We lost some sound accuracy, but we gained a lot of truthfulness. My deepest gratitude is both for actors delivering their lives from behind the camera and for those who ‘played’ their part and what they felt all along the 17 minutes of the shot even if they had just a line or two. Last but not least, it was crucial that the scene feels as if it experienced from the perspective of the main characters – Csilla and Matthias – and consequently the focus in the shot is adjusted accordingly to where Csilla is watching.

8. Finally, without revealing any spoilers, could you tell us a little bit about the meaning of the ending and the significance of those bears we see?

There are two most frequently asked questions about the ending: Why is Csilla ask for forgiveness – and what I can say is that Mattias is probably as surprised as the spectators – only that you are in a better position to guess why she is feeling guilty. And second is about the very ending – but given that RMN is a film about our dual nature, half human, capable of empathy and forgiveness – half animal, with fears and instincts coming from the darkness of our subconsciousness – I don’t think it is so difficult to interpret. Matthias eventually learns something that we should all be aware of: that the source of evil in the world might be coming more from you than from the outside world and that the most difficult animal to tame is yourself.

Image courtesy: Cineplex Colombia / Mobra Films.

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