Cannes 2022 Interview: Cristian Mungiu
This article appeared in the May 25, 2022, Cannes Film Festival special edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here. Catch up on all of our coverage of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival here.
Perhaps the single best scene witnessed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival comes about two-thirds of the way into Cristian Mungiu’s R.M.N., when all the tension generated by the filmmaker converges in a 17-minute town meeting in which 26 characters have dialogue—shot, per Mungiu’s preferred aesthetic, in a single take.
Balancing the personal and political concerns of his large ensemble, their character arcs and their archetypes, Mungiu’s set piece depicts a forum held at the cultural center of a Transylvanian village up in arms about the Sri Lankan migrant workers brought in to work at a local bakery. The film, based on a true story, balances dialogue in Romanian, Hungarian, French, German, and English, with subtitles for each language in a different color, and in the meeting scene in particular, offers a full spectrum of perspectives on economic anxiety, the costs of globalization, and interethnic tensions across a broad cross section of a society.
In the opening scene of R.M.N., a young boy, Rudi (Mark Blenyesi), sees something in the woods: a traumatic sight, or perhaps a premonition. Whatever it is remains unknown to us, at least initially. His father, Matthias (Marin Grigore), abruptly leaves Germany, where he’s found work in a slaughterhouse, to return to the village. There, he argues about Rudi’s upbringing with his estranged wife, Ana (Macrina Bârlădeanu). At the same time, he sets out to rekindle an affair with the bakery manager Csilla (Judith State), who spends her evenings playing the theme from In the Mood for Love on the cello. Like Mungiu’s previous film, Graduation (2016), R.M.N. observes the masculine urge to at once control family life and avoid difficult conversations. In this new film, Mungiu also provides a dazzlingly complete picture of the ethnic complexities of the region, a land between empires: Transylvania has been home to Romanians, ethnic Hungarians, Germans, and Roma, as well as newer arrivals from the E.U. and migrant workers from the Global South—all alongside the oldest residents of all: the bears.
This week at Cannes, I spoke to Mungiu about the timely, timeless, and technical aspects of his movie.
Let’s start with the town meeting. Tell me about writing this cross section of society. Did you do dedicated research into the attitudes and beliefs of Transylvanians of different ethnicities and classes?
The first answer is that I don’t think that R.M.N. stands only for Romania. That’s important. I don’t think that the films I do speak mostly about Romania, or just about Romania. Through that story and that tiny little village I speak about you, the state of the world, and human nature in general. Getting back to what gives me the right to write lines for these people—
The right, but also the knowledge.
The knowledge, in this case, is simpler. This conversation exists on the internet. You can follow it if you have someone translating from Hungarian. I started by reading all the articles [about the real-life events on which the film is based], watching all the videos, and having somebody translate this [town hall] conversation to me. Then I wrote the screenplay. After that, the first thing I did was start my scouting by going to this bakery, this factory. I talked to this lady [the manager, and the basis for Csilla]—and to the two people in the original case, the two foreign workers who were the subjects of this conversation. I got feedback that 90 percent of the way I imagined things was valid—not in terms of facts, but psychologically. The 10 percent that was not valid was even worse [than what I wrote]. The people agitating the community against the factory were family members of the owners of the bakery, which made this class conflict also a family conflict, of people who cannot stand that there’s somebody standing out from their milieu and family in this tiny little village.
I like watching videos on YouTube about how borders change, in time-lapse—two minutes for the last 2,000 years. I chose Transylvania because it represents precisely this: a place which is claimed to be part of the history of several peoples. The question is: what do you do with nationalistic, populistic discourses when you actually have to live there. Everything which is said in the film quotes or evokes something that really happened. Now these people get along a bit better, but for one reason: poverty strikes the same for everybody, so everybody’s working abroad. Even so, when we were scouting, we knew precisely if the village we went into was primarily inhabited by Hungarians or Romanians, because there’s always [a statue of] an iconic figure, either Romanian or Hungarian, as soon as you enter the village.
Another, more technical question about the town meeting scene: With that many actors and that much going on—all shot in a single take—did you choose one take out of 20 or 25 that all had their own flaws or virtues?
The scene was even longer when I wrote it—longer than 25 pages, and I knew that that meant 25 minutes. I knew that for shooting I needed to let some people talk while everybody else was talking, because people won’t just shut up and listen. This kind of situation is not rational; people are very agitated and they speak at the same time. I have to say, nobody believed in this scene. I didn’t give the screenplay to anybody back home, but of course I had to submit it to some financing bodies, so I gave it to my partners in France, and they all said, “Well, this might be complicated… maybe it doesn’t belong in the film. It’s about the crowd, not about [the main characters].” I had to explain that the scene is going to have [Matthias and Csilla] in front of the camera, talking from time to time, and eventually we’ll see that they participate.
I knew that I had to shoot it in one take, because it’s part of a philosophy. You can’t give up just because it’s complicated. It’s very difficult to shoot people talking to one another in plan-séquence. Whenever I stage situations with several actors, I make sure I find different positions for them so they each face the camera sometimes. But for this scene, that was impossible, so I came up with the idea that I would have a wall of mirrors, so I could see everybody. Then, I realized after one early rehearsal that for the people talking off to the side of the camera, it was a bit difficult to focus—[imagine if] you are an actor, and this guy’s shooting 20 minutes of other people. So I brought in a second camera, a journalist’s camera [seen within the shot], and I recorded with it, just to let this idea float that if we ever needed to use something from it, we might. The basic, important decision, though, is that I took the first eight pages of dialogue and overlapped it with the dialogue of the main characters. I decided it was not going to be possible to understand everything and to listen to everything, but that people needed to speak at the same time.
We mixed it in such a way that you have this choir behind these people; you listen to somebody in the front but you also listen to many other people in the background at the same time. The other difficult thing was to understand where and how to place the actors in front of this camera that doesn’t move, because we don’t move the camera unless we follow something. We decided that we were going to follow the perspective of Csilla [by pulling focus].
Then, as you can imagine, we started shooting, and it was not going well at all in the beginning. I had just two days to shoot [the sequence]. I talked with the actors in the evening, and I sent them a letter, which I never do. I said, “Guys, this requires a level of precision you never have in theater and you’re never going to have again in film, so you need to know the text by heart.” We got the right energy the moment I involved the extras. The moment I told them that they were part of the situation, and their reactions mattered as much as what the actors say—oh my god!
How did you know it was over?
The answer is, you know if you got there or not. And, as you said, I knew from the moment I started that I wouldn’t have a perfect take. It’s not possible. This is why I always insist everybody says the same thing every time. I don’t have the freedom of editing the picture, but I still have the freedom of editing the sound—on the condition that the actors say the same thing every time. So most of the takes in the film are not the original takes that we shot: the dialogue is always edited. Sometimes it’s 80 or 90 percent of what the actors said, but most of the time it’s 50 percent, and the other lines come from other takes. For this scene we compared two, maybe three takes. And what I do after every other take is take half an hour to speak with everybody. They knew in detail what we wanted.
I’m not sure if this is a good film or a bad film, but it’s a film you can see twice. You can watch whichever character in a scene [you choose], and they’re playing their own scene, in this case for 17 minutes; Macrina Bârlădeanu, playing Ana, is a very good example. I talked to each of the actors about what happens in their head, how they participate, what their opinion—personal, political—is. It’s a very polyphonic moment. It tells you what cinema can do: it can capture something very staged and choreographed, and still render this feeling that resembles life.
Mark Asch is the author of Close-Ups: New York Movies, and a contributor to Film Comment, Filmmaker, Little White Lies, Reverse Shot, the Criterion Collection’s Current, Hyperallergic, and elsewhere.