If Cristian Mungiu isn’t the most prolific filmmaker to emerge from Romanian cinema’s gilded age, he does tend to cause a stir. Cristi Puiu was first in the door at Cannes, bringing Stuff and Dough to Director’s Fortnight in 2001, and the first to win a prize with The Death of Mr. Lazarescu in 2005, but it was Mungiu who got the big one.
Since 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days achieved that feat in 2007, Mungiu has released just three films. “I’m a filmmaker, this is what gives some sense to my life,” Mungiu explained last week in an office just inland from the Lumiere Theatre where his latest had premiered a few nights previous, “I’d like to make a film every two years, but I’m not smart enough to come up with something important to say. I think that there’s already too much material, too many films. Why would they make my bullshit? I feel this is my Deserto Rosso, the red desert that I have to cross every time. I spend weeks and months and years just sitting in my office and thinking about things and not coming up with anything good enough. I want to produce something that will make people think.”
His film probably will make people think. It’s titled R.M.N., the Romanian equivalent of an MRI, and sets itself the lofty task of giving a brain scan not just to the protagonist’s father but the whole of Europe and, perhaps, the world. It follows a Hungarian man, Matthias (Marin Grigore), who experiences racist abuse while working abroad in Germany only to find, upon returning to his wife and son in their village in Transylvania, that same prejudice being enacted on three Sri Lankan men who have emigrated, in the exact same way as Matthias, to work there. Will he help to stop it?
The Film Stage: It’s been six years since Graduation. How do you know when you’ve found the right project to work on?
Cristian Mungiu: Eventually something happens. At some point, after you get depressed, you understand that, yes, maybe this is worth trying. I thought that, with this story set in a very tiny little community, I could speak about the world today. I know it sounds a little ambitious, but that’s what I’m trying to speak about: the state of the world in a specific moment, like a [Clicks] snapshot.
This is how I came up with this title. It’s a snapshot of what happens outside our minds and inside our minds, and what happens inside doesn’t always look great. I think it’s good to have this scan from time to time—see, hmm some problems there. But the problems can only be addressed as long as you are willing to listen to the really deep-down opinions of people. And they might not be very politically correct, but this is what the truth is and you can only start from there.
You wanted R.M.N. to be a microcosm, not just of Europe, but of the world?
Yes, I did. Thank you for putting it so precisely. Of course it’s about that village and about Transylvania and about Romania and a lot about Europe, but it’s about the world. It’s about how easily we identify the other as a potential enemy. It’s about tribes. It always was; this is how we evolved. If there’s another tribe, we will fight. We will fight for fruit or sheep or land or whatever.
This is the way it started, and even though we think that we are superior beings flying in space, 98% of our brain, deep down, is still an animal brain fighting for survival. I know if there was a huge noise here we would run away immediately because 98% of the brain is about survival, and on top of it is this thin crust of things we added through education, religion, culture over the last 2,000, 5,000, 40,000 years? But there are millions of years of evolution before that generated these deep impulses that we can’t always control.
Do you see the film in these evolutionary terms?
We shouldn’t forget that we act based on what our glands secrete and R.M.N. is a story about that, especially in this moment where everything has become so global. So we have to face the same problems we always had, but in a different rhythm. As much as we speak about investing in education today, it’s very difficult to keep up with the speed of things. The time that we have to seriously address an issue is shrinking, and therefore we only use stereotypes and we simplify things. It’s very complicated, and very complicated when you try to put this into cinema.
Cinema, it’s beautiful but it’s not a teacher. It’s kind of a simple language, and way less precise than literature. You need to find a visual equivalent of what you mean. You shoot concrete things but you hope that they have an abstract meaning. How can you speak about subconscious, unconscious, anxiety, impulses, the animal in you? I think we have some answers in this film.
Speaking of abstractions, these bear costumes feature heavily. What do they represent for you?
It is a tradition in Romania that happens during feasts for the new season, for Christmas. It’s about being one with the animal and fighting the animal inside. And they have this tradition at the beginning of the year, when they fight. The idea is that you fight because you need to unleash some violence deep down.
And we do this all the time. We do this through sport, through competition, all these things. Why do we need to compete? Because we are very violent animals and we always want to see who’s stronger. It’s not very nice. It’s not saying something very nice about us, to be honest. With whom do we fight? The different tribe. Who is the different tribe? Whoever is in the room now. If there are two people there are two tribes.
What is Matthias’ line? “The ones who show pity die first. I want you to die last.”
It’s about this kind of logic. We have a lot of sayings. We have one—I don’t know how to translate it—“my shirt is always closer to me than my jacket.” This says a lot. I like you a lot—you’re nice, maybe you’re human, maybe you’re well-intentioned—but I don’t know. I like my children better and my family better. I’m going to give them something to eat first.
There’s something in this tradition of people fighting. Always you find something different in this other tribe. It could be something important, less important: religion, sex, cultural things. You want something that the other wants. I used the example of these people because the differences between them in this village do not exist. They say that they fight for New Year’s Eve, the “uphills” versus the “downhill,” but in reality this village is flat.
They find a way.
They find a way.
Your ending is cryptic. Without giving away too much, is there any clue you could give to somebody watching?
Yes, there are a few, but how about this: books do not give you a key to understanding them. Films are simpler, but they also shouldn’t. What I try to do is to make sure that before this ending, I give you, as a spectator, all the possible elements to interpret this ending. It’s a crossover of what I want you to get from the film, but also what you get from the film with your background. Because you don’t have the same information that I have. Think about what you’ve seen in the film. What matters to me is that the main character is in-between this world, this forest, all these impulses, all these fears, all these dangers, this other world of music, education, love. He’s very confused, as he was from the beginning. As we all are.
Just to finish on a kind of boring technical question: there is an incredible sequence at a town hall near the end. How many takes did you do?
22. Because every shot lasted 17 minutes, if we were lucky; if you stop it in the 15th minute or the 8th minute, you will kill yourself. I usually remember what I need to say to the actors after each take, but even for me, with 26 actors, I had to make notes and I needed 40 to 45 minutes between takes to speak to them. Then you have 200 extras who keep saying, “Oh, it’s late and we want to go home.” Then in one moment I told them, “Look, you’re not extras, you’re actors. It matters a lot to me how you react. It is as important. For once, I want to have, like, a Greek theatre, the collective character. It’s you trying to say what you think.”
And from that moment it was complete chaos. The actors couldn’t give their lines, they had to shout, and they didn’t know when to say their line because they were reacting so violently. So for the last days I would look for a position where I could conduct the scene, giving them the temperature of the reactions.
R.M.N. premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released by IFC Films.