Taming the Animal: An interview with Cristian Mungiu on RMN

Cristian Mungiu on RMN
April 28th 2023

R.M.N., the title of Cristian Mungiu’s latest film, would be in English rendered as N.M.R., for nuclear magnetic resonance, the physical phenomenon utilized in MRIs. Accordingly, this slowburn social thriller scrutinizes a small Transylvanian village—a melting pot of Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, and Romani—and exposes a rippling reservoir of nativism, tribalism, and hypocrisy.

Shot with unflinching naturalism and Mungiu’s customary long takes, the film follows Matthias (Marin Gregoire), a man of Roma descent, as he tries to rekindle a flame with his ex, Csilla (Judith State). In order to obtain EU funding for the local bread factory, she hires a trio of minimum-wage workers from Sri Lanka, whose arrival unsettles the residents and ruffles the already flimsy fabric of the community. This culminates in an uninterrupted 17-minute town hall sequence where dozens air their grievances, which encapsulate everything from xenophobic fake news to a milder, though no less nefarious, refrain: “We have nothing against them, but their place isn’t here.” In a detailed conversion, edited for length and clarity, Mungiu speaks about globalization, political responsibility, political correctness, and other interpretations of the film’s title.


Elissa Suh: Going into the film, I didn't realize it was going to be a Christmas movie and a pandemic movie, in the sense that it presages the attitudes that were to come once the pandemic actually set in.

Cristian Mungiu: The film is fictional but based on something that happened in Romania, which I changed to make more coherent. There were two things that were very important for me to preserve: one is that this guy was really leaving Germany to spend Christmas at home, and the other one was that the story was happening before the pandemic. When I was shooting, I considered that by the end of the film some of the extras could have masks, but I thought that that would be too precise in terms of positioning the film. It was important to have it be a bit more fluid and still have these ideas about the effect of globalization.

Christmas is a moment of reverse migration, you could say, when everybody comes back home here, because we have so many people abroad. People just left for work, and the country seems deserted, to be honest. If you go to small villages, there are just old people there. Everybody goes to work in the West, and returns home to the East. The further east they come the more they behave [as they do in the film], and I wanted to explore why that was. Why aren't we more reasonable? Why can't we apply to others the same kind of judgment or standards that we would like for others to apply to ourselves? I think the answer is that it’s part of human nature.

ES: Matthias, one of the main characters, also answers that question when he tells his son that people who have pity are the ones who die first. It's all about survival.

CM: I see this and hear that around me a lot. There’s a trend nowadays among parents who somehow got panicked by the future of our world, which once looked very far and distant. Like in Mad Max [1979], it seemed like we were going to have to look for water and fight for resources way, way down the line at some point, and now you talk to parents who imagine that this could happen during the lifetime of their children instead. It's not comforting to them, and brings them a lot of anxiety, not knowing what kind of future to prepare their children for. In the case of Matthias: he's well-intentioned, but I think he projects more anxiety on his child than his child actually has.

And I shot a very nice Christmas scene, which unfortunately didn’t make it [into the film] because I felt that whatever happened in this small village contrasted so much with what Christmas should teach you. Christian or not, you should feel better at Christmas. The whole moment encourages you to have more warmth, more empathy, and to be good to others. And yet, the events in the film happened very close to Christmas. All of a sudden people felt that they had a point to make, and nothing about these very "Christian" ideas we're meant to celebrate stayed with them during this time.

ES: There's a scene on Christmas day when someone is explaining to the Frenchman the context of Transylvania and how it's been "squeezed by empires" and the likes of the Ottomans, Hungarians, Mongolians. This quote comes up: "Brother, brother, but cheese is money." I took it to mean that business and money matters, transactional things, have to be kept separate from friendship. Did I get that right?

CM: Unfortunately, we have a lot of shameful Romanian sayings like this that relate the past wisdom of people back then who needed to survive. It means that we can be friends, or even family, but when business is involved there are different rules—I won't do you any favors just because you are close to me. These aren't things that you would tell your child today.

You could relate to the saying, I guess, but it says something more about the kind of harshness that people living here had to endure and overcome. We even have one claiming that "The one who keeps his head down won't have it beheaded." That's not really very encouraging. Normally, you'd tell your kid to fight for something, and this is quite the opposite.

Filmmaker Cristian Mungiu

ES: That saying almost perfectly describes Mathias, who is kind of politically inert. He's welcomed everywhere and has ins with different types of people, but he is more concerned with his own personal life and his status with his ex-lover than what’s going on in town.

CM: What's interesting for me, in the film and in society, is that there are a lot of people like this who believe that if you don't have an opinion, then you don't have a responsibility. What he learns as a character, if he learns anything at all, is that the responsibility is on the individual. You will be held responsible, even if you avoid participating. That’s how it goes in the world now.

I'd also like to say that Mattias is a very anti-mainstream character, in the sense that he doesn't really evolve too much—and this is what I wanted. He represents these people who are puzzled about what’s happening today. They are clueless and don't understand the rhythm of change in this globalized society. They try to hold on to what they knew: traditions, the way it was, the role of a husband, or someone's role as a woman.

ES: Csilla is Mattias’s lover and also his foil. She has a better moral compass and tries to help the persecuted immigrant workers. She’s also the kind of person who likes to spend her Christmas alone watching movies and her free time playing a very iconic “Yumeji’s Theme” from In the Mood for Love [2000] on the cello.

CM: I like to write character biographies for the actors so they know their history. Csilla and Mattias are in an improbable relationship based on a shared adolescence. They were together in high school so there's a sort of nostalgia for them, and they don't see themselves the way they are now—they’ve reached different levels of social status. Csilla obviously represents more of that active and progressive side of the society. Because of globalization, these types of people all share the same kind of views: they're vegans, they recycle, they buy from IKEA, and look at the same sites, and all this is possible because of the internet. On the other side, Mattias is the one who has taken from globalization only the hatred, the fear, the fake news about a colossal ending. But, they share this common desire for affection. I wouldn’t even call it love. They need to be hugged and to feel close to somebody. I was also trying to make sure that she is not an exceptionally positive character. If you follow what she does closely, you’ll see that she acts well in certain situations, but not others.

So, I wanted to associate her with a very recognizable melody, one that would speak about globalization and this need for affection. She's there in this small, tiny village, but she has access to an iconic song about desire, matching these two aspects of her character.

ES: You mentioned themes like individuality, globalization, authority, tolerance, and survival. When you're writing, how do you make sure your script doesn't focus too heavily on one thing or the other?

CM: I can only hope when I’m writing. As soon as I finish writing the shooting script, I revise the characters and the dialogue so there are no ideas or words coming directly from me through them. I make sure that a certain degree of ambiguity is still present in their actions and always try to not have “good” or “bad” characters. My aim in this kind of filmmaking is not to be objective, but to get a little bit closer to a certain kind of objectivity where I observe the reality and relate the context in which some people make some decisions. I do not comment on their ethicality; I give you enough information so you can judge for yourself.

I think that the film speaks a little bit about the end of democracy and the way we view it, and the side effects of this political correctness, which only covers what people say, not what they think. The problem is with what they think and why they think it. I think that you need to let people express themselves if you hope to profoundly change something about what they think and how they behave. If you just signal to them that it's forbidden to say this thing or the other, nothing will change—and you will be in for a big surprise when they vote. People will continue acting the way they do, and not just in the film, which stands for something that could happen anywhere.

I have this feeling that we, in general—in society and in the art and film business—do not dare any longer to tackle certain issues. We avoid speaking about certain things, and that's not how art should be. I come from this country where I experienced a lot of censorship early on, and I hope that we're not heading back in this direction. I think that cinema should be talking precisely about those things which are difficult and try to reach the truth, even if what you say can be a bit politically incorrect, even when you're quoting people.


ES: You’re alluding to the town hall scene at the community center, which is obviously the culmination of all those things you just mentioned. It's very frustrating to hear all these opinions, some very politically incorrect, but at the same time I was struck by hearing this chorus of voices: You don't often get to see many different people gather in real life, and express themselves in, what is for the most part, a civilized manner.

CM: This forum really happened, and a recording of it is online for those who want to watch and understand Hungarian. All the comments that I used in the film—including scenes where characters check comments, also very politically incorrect, on their phones—have not been changed from the original. I couldn't be more politically incorrect than the things that existed already. I just had to organize them and make them concise, but I didn't have to invent anything.

There's something about the internet and the anonymity it provides that brings out the worst out of people. There's a lot of hatred and you start asking why it’s happening, how this is possible.

It's not nice to admit, but it reveals a side that we have inside all of us. And from this perspective, the film speaks a lot about this internal conflict between the animalic side of you and the more human and empathic side. You know what’s funny is that I did a lot of Q&As, which always have two parts: the "official" Q&A in the cinema, where we talk politely when I'm on the stage, and then afterwards. As soon as I step out, people come to me and say, "Actually, we believe precisely like these people in the film, and it's very good that somebody was brave enough to say this!" And I say, "Well, you don't actually know what my opinion is. I'm just quoting things." This gap between individual [and actual] truth becomes too big when it’s you just sitting by yourself with your own ideas vs. saying them out loud in public. There's a lot of hypocrisy, and unless you manage to tackle this, you can't expect any real progress in society.

ES: When did you come up with the title, which gives insight into what you're doing with the film: scanning the human brain and the opposing impulses that occur in different parts?

CM: This time it came while I was writing. it's always better to have a title because if not, everybody's just going to have an opinion on it. I thought that the film was going to be open to interpretation because it's quite abstract in some parts, but it turned out even the title was interpretable, which I never expected! As with my previous film, I don't know if it's a good title or not because it doesn't really translate precisely in all languages. But, it worked well in the languages where it was well translated.

In Cannes people thought that it stood for Romania which is not the case.The film is set in a part of Romania, but the film speaks about something that happens pretty much everywhere in the world. There were people who believed it was the name of the characters: Rudi, Matthias, noi, "us." Some others thought it was about the three ethnicities in the film: Romanians, Hungarians, and Germans, which in Romanian is R.M.N. But the one I liked most is that it stands for “raman” or "remain,” as in “I stay.” “I stay to change things, because what’s on screen is about me, and I don't like what I see.” That's a very good interpretation, as well, that I never planned.

ES: There's a bit of surrealism to the ending of the film. Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little about what you want the viewers to take away from the final scenes?

CM: With cinema, the things that you want people to get out of your film can't and shouldn't be verbalized precisely in just one single way. So if I want people to take something from the ending, I want them to understand that there's a character at the end who more or less has to choose between two different kinds of worlds, one of which is darker, corresponding to our subconscious, where things might pop up. They might be human, they might be animals, they might be instincts, or creatures coming from his imagination, or just an impersonation of his anxiety. I don't know what they are, but they are brutal and tempting him, luring him to go over there.

ES: I heard an interesting theory that the reason Csilla plays the cello is to calm the bears down.

CM: That's a very interesting way of interpreting the ending, which in a lot of ways is connected to what I meant, because she's trying to keep Mattias on her side.

On the other side there is the music, there is the warmth, there are the lights, there's community, affection. Mattias needs to make a choice between these two sides. Every spectator needs to make this choice because if you don't, you’ll be surprised at who you are in this kind of difficult moment. All the things that you can interpret as being a little outside reality speak to these inner feelings that we have, and the need of taming the animal which is inside of you.

R.M.N. opens today, April 28, at IFC Center.