Cristian Mungiu has returned to the Cannes competition with this dour, gloomy psychodrama of central European xenophobia: a Romanian-Brexity hostility which has taken up residence in the brains of people in a multi-ethnic region of Transylvania. They are people who can’t decide which racial identity among their neighbours they dislike the most, or how much to dislike the EU from which so much financial help still comes, but whose richer countries are very racist indeed towards them. For all that it is a little contrived and underpowered sometimes, RMN is an intriguing essay on a kind of crisis in the racist mindset: when and how do you suppress your dislike of one kind of people to make common cause with them against some other kind?
The setting is a village where Romanians, ethnic Hungarians and German-speakers have lived together reasonably calmly for 30 years. Matthias (Marin Grigore) is hatchet-faced guy who has had to abandon his job in a German slaughterhouse after assaulting the racist foreman who had called him a “lazy gipsy”. Now back in his hometown and unemployed, Matthias is coldly received by his wife Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu) because he is clearly still having an affair with another woman, the rather stylish Hungarian Csilla (Judith State), who plays the cello and manages a modern hi-tech bakery with the help of EU grants. The town’s quarrelling people are coming together to express their bigoted loathing of the Sri Lankans Csilla has hired – because no locals responded to the job ads. (Like Matthias, of course, the menfolk are more interested in the bigger pay-packets to be had in Germany, among people who look down on them.) Meanwhile, Matthias’s ailing father is very sick and has had to have an MRI scan (in Romanian a “rezonanță magnetică nucleară”, or RMN).
Most disturbing for Matthias – and the crisis which has brought him back – is that is his young son Rudi (Mark Blenyesi) has been struck speechless by something terrible that he has witnessed in the bleak surrounding woodland. He can no longer say anything. What has Rudi seen? A wild animal? One of the illegal immigrants, perhaps, that the local blowhards claim are undermining local values? Or was it some kind of horrible premonition? It isn’t clear. But Matthias has now taken to carrying his rifle everywhere, which must worry all those familiar with Chekhov’s rule about what happens to a gun produced in Act One. And Matthias is brooding over his father’s brain-scan images, which he has downloaded to his phone: an eerie new version of the skull beneath the skin, and the sickness beneath the skull.
Mungui’s storytelling style is as unemphatic and low-key as ever, and he has arresting keynote scene in which a “town meeting” is convened in which everyone’s racist paranoia can be freely aired; this is shown in one, continuous, uninterrupted static shot. RMN is a sombre downbeat movie, whose sudden flurry of dreamlike visions at the very end is a little disconcerting. But it is seriously engaged with the dysfunction and unhappiness in Europe that goes unreported and unacknowledged.
• RMN screens at the Cannes film festival.