Cristian Mungiu • Director of R.M.N.
"We have to defy all these rules which form the basis of storytelling, in theory"
- The Romanian director decodes his masterful and compositely refined film, which was unveiled in competition at the latest Cannes Film Festival
R.M.N. [+see also:
interview: Cristian Mungiu
interview: Judith State
film profile] by Cristian Mungiu - the Romanian director awarded multiple trophies in Cannes (namely the Palme d’Or in 2007, prizes for Best Screenplay and Best Actress in 2012, and Best Direction in 2016) - thrusts us into a small village in Transylvania which reflects the modern-day ills and decisions of individuals and Europeans. We met with the maestro in Paris ahead of his movie’s release in France on 19 October, courtesy of Le Pacte.
Cineuropa: R.M.N. features a number of characters and tackles many subjects. What was your original idea for the film?
Cristian Mungiu: It all started with a real-life incident which took place in Transylvania in 2020. I was struck, like so many other people, by the fact that a xenophobic incident like this had happened within a minority. You would have thought that one minority would be more sympathetic towards another, given that they’re both minorities, but the opposite happened. They’ve always fought to preserve this region, and its historic Hungarian traditions, because they want to protect their culture. So they’d rather not be open, to Romanians or to anyone else. I followed the events as they unfolded, but I only started to think about turning it into a film when I found lots of other potential themes to explore.
In telling the story of this tiny village, the film speaks about the state of the modern world, about us as incredibly tribal individuals who need to identify with a group, to consider others as potential enemies and, as soon as anything goes wrong, to find a guilty party among those outside of the group. I thought this story was a brilliant reflection of the anxiety we feel these days vis-a-vis the future. We’re flooded with information on global warming, new patterns of migration, the battle for Earth’s increasingly limited natural resources, etc. This gradually creates anxious people who are no longer sure about the best message to convey when educating their children. And this leads to inner conflict between our empathic human side and our primal survival instincts. There’s a clash, because we like to consider ourselves vastly superior to animals but, in reality, we’re animals too, because the area of our brain which is shaped by education and culture only constitutes a tiny surface layer developed over the past 5,000 years, as compared to millions of years of primal instincts. And in critical situations, humans make decisions influenced by this deeper area. It’s clearly universal, and important enough to make a film about.
I incorporated lots of other themes linking into all of that. The film speaks about our need to belong, new patterns of migration, the fear we have towards things we’re not familiar with and which we can’t control, our tendency to be suspicious of others, traditions in the face of modernism, Europe, and the huge difference between the wonderful ideas we all adhere to in principle, but which are more complicated and soon become problematic in practice. Subjects, in sum, which we don’t explore very often in film. Because we’re living in a globalised world which has changed a lot of things, but which is also a world of political correctness, which prevents people from being sincere. Unfortunately, this political correctness hasn’t changed our beliefs in the slightest: it only stops people from saying what they’re feeling. It’s not good, because if we don’t know what they’re thinking, we can’t change anything, and we’ll have some monumental surprises in store when the elections come around: and then we’ll wonder how such a result is possible. It’s possible because we don’t want to listen to people. We have to listen to them and look at them. Even in a case which seems crystal clear, like the one we explore in the film, things aren’t always quite so simple and it’s not good to think that we’re on the side of the truth while others are wrong. So I thought it would be interesting to talk about individualism in relation to the group.
How did you go about tackling such complicated subjects?
I tried to develop my film approach, to be less sympathetic towards my characters; in a certain sense, to be more respectful in how I tackled the tricky subjects I was exploring. One of these themes is the way in which people change from individuals into being part of a crowd. In the film, after coming together at the church, the inhabitants make their way to the town hall and that’s when they become a crowd, when they start to lose their individuality, which triggers the most tragic consequences in the story. The war in Ukraine started during post-production, and it showed just how unreasonable people can be and that it doesn’t take much for them to reveal their cruel side, to kill, torture or rape those who were their neighbours the day before. And all in the name of what? Minute differences exalted by propaganda are all it takes for people to think they’re not part of the same group or tribe. In my film, we’re actually talking about a group of people who share the same language historically, but that doesn’t even matter anymore. If we add religion into the mix, skin colour, historical conflicts, it’s even more complicated. I hope the film serves as a snapshot of what I believe to be a glimpse of the world, even if they’re really complex mechanisms to capture in film. What matters is that it’s pertinent, not only now but when people watch the film in five, ten- or 25-years’ time, and that I’ve managed to capture that anxiety, that confusion.
I also decided to do something which goes totally against the usual principles of storytelling. Everyone expects films to obey certain rules, for the main character to evolve, and to understand more at the end than he or she did at the beginning, etc. But life and reality aren’t like that, and people don’t change in two weeks. It’s all far more complicated than that. If we want to base our stories on reality and stay true to it, we have to defy all these rules which form the basis of storytelling, in theory. For this reason, when it came to the main character, I wanted him to be anxious, first and foremost, and to project all of this anxiety onto his child. But in the end, he’s still very confused, caught between two worlds. My aim was to address abstract matters and so it was a complicated process because, in film, you have to do so via something concrete. We always hope that it will make viewers think, although audiences are currently a bit lazy, because they’re not often exposed to film genres which require them to gather the different elements together and think about different viewpoints. I don’t want to give conclusions on what viewers see and I don’t want to pass judgement; I want to present an incredibly complicated situation, explain how and why it came about and what the consequences are. It’s up to viewers to pass moral judgement and to understand why the film’s protagonists reacted in the way they did. Moreover, lots of elements within the film have abstract meanings, such as the forest which surrounds the village and represents the subconscious level: dark, endless and arousing fear. It echoes the fact that the main character is ultimately oscillating between these two worlds: our darkest animal side and our most luminous side relating to love, colours and music. What will he do? I don’t know. The aim is that viewers contemplate this story belonging to someone else, but that it makes them think about their own choices. What will they do in a world where they are prisoners to such conflicts?
Dilemmas are fairly common in your films.
Yes, because I don’t believe there’s such a thing as a clear moral choice. As human beings, we have the freedom to make decisions, taking responsibility for the results of our decisions. And no decision ever takes us solely along the path we chose: that’s what’s difficult about negotiating life. R.M.N. also examines the same dilemma addressed in Graduation [+see also:
Q&A: Cristian Mungiu
interview: Cristian Mungiu
film profile]: what are you going to teach your children, given the way the future’s looking? To be winners? Survivors? Fighters? To be the first to flee when the fire starts? Or to be polite? Parents are undoubtedly always afraid for their children, but anxiety is on the rise with the successive crises we’re experiencing.
Is your bias towards sequence-shots part of this desire to be as realistic as possible?
It’s definitely linked to the idea of a film speaking to reality and to the basic characteristics of reality, the first of which is that it’s a continuum. I also wanted to manipulate the film as little as possible, because we have to trust in the audience without telling them what they should feel or which conclusion they should draw. This requires authentic and therefore slightly ambiguous characters. I don’t believe in unequivocal characters because people aren’t like that. I decided to keep going with sequence-shots for every scene, even if it is becoming a bit formal, what with several films and other filmmakers proceeding in the same way, and it can sometimes be a bit tiresome for viewers who like to see an evolution in the way stories are told. I’m confident in the system, but I’m well aware that this form of storytelling has lost some of the bite it had when we started. But I wanted to take it as far as I could in this film. What I actually changed was the pace, by shortening certain sequences.
What about your incredible 17-minute sequence featuring 26 characters?
It was quite difficult to film, because when you’ve got people talking face to face with one another, you can suddenly find yourself with actors behind the camera. And given that the scene accounted for 26 pages of the screenplay, it wasn’t easy for the actors when the camera wasn’t on them. So I organised the scene so that there was a second camera; I was almost certain I wouldn’t use those rushes, but it helped the actors to focus. I also arranged for a wall of mirrors to be built behind the crowd, so that all the actors would realise they were in the frame. Obviously, this came with a few complications, because I had to find the right position for the first camera. I also felt the need to interfere in the scene. Without speaking, I started guiding people’s energy in that context. First, I realised that I had to allow people to talk at the same time, rather than one after the other. Obviously, it wasn’t written like that, so I took the first six pages of the scene and mixed them with the six pages that followed. It wasn’t easy, but later, during filming, I was able to follow what interested me the most in the general conversation. I also needed to understand Romanian as well as Hungarian in order to this! So it’s a polyphonic scene, with some people translating for others, different languages… It’s a bit of a Tower of Babel! In fact, after trying to arrange things so that the actors did what they had to do, I also realised that I had a crowd which was a character in itself, a collective, like an ancient chorus. This was after two days of filming, and they were all tired. I encouraged them to free themselves from acting etiquette, to understand that they had to react as sincerely as possible, to express themselves freely, including the extras who I allowed to talk. It caused chaos straight away, but little by little it helped the actors, because suddenly no-one was stopping to let others deliver their lines: they had to fight to speak at the right moment and they didn’t fully understand each other’s texts. It lent a huge amount of realism to the scene, and on the 22nd take, we arrived at this result which borders on improvisation, to the untrained eye.
(Translated from French)
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