Where to begin with Cristian Mungiu

As his latest film R.M.N. goes on release, we backtrack through Cristian Mungui’s widescreen cinema of moral dilemmas and awkward truths.

R.M.N. (2022)

Why this might not seem so easy

From his feature debut, Occident (2002), to his latest, R.M.N. (2022), Cristian Mungiu’s output has been comparatively sparse (five solo-directed features, plus contributions to two portmanteau efforts) but hugely distinctive.

His second feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) unexpectedly won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, firmly establishing the Romanian New Wave as a topic of ongoing international interest after the breakthrough of Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005), and since then he has continued to probe deep into Romania’s psyche – indeed, the title of R.M.N. does double duty as an abbreviated translation of ‘magnetic resonance imaging’ and the international code for Romania.

Mungiu has said that his primary influences are Robert Altman and Miloš Forman, something especially apparent from his latest film as it’s not at all hard to imagine Altman or Forman applying an equally sprawling and garrulous approach to the inhabitants of a small Transylvanian village. However, Mungiu has forged a highly distinctive style of his own, based around 2.35:1 widescreen compositions with minimal camera movement, but a lot happening within the frame.

He’s fond of exceptionally long takes, but not in the manner of his neighbour Béla Tarr; rather, he likes to focus our attention fixedly on the protagonist(s) as things happen around them, be it the trivial chit-chat of a dinner party when far weightier matters are at stake in the background, or a 15-minute single-shot debate about village racism with its impact on the tiny liberal enclave being uncomfortably apparent throughout.  

Indeed, one generally feels uncomfortable throughout a Mungiu film, not least because he always takes the trouble to give all sides of the argument a fair hearing, something seen to best effect in the form of the ghastly moral dilemma underpinning Graduation (2016). Similarly, anyone expecting 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to be wholly pro-choice will be startled by the unflinching close-up of precisely what a recently aborted 19-week-old fetus looks like.

But Mungiu is not the kind of filmmaker to gloss over awkward truths, and the fact that many of them are so universal means that his films have resonated well beyond their native Romania.  

The best place to start – 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

An obvious starter, but Mungiu’s breakthrough film remains a standout, for the early establishment of a mature style that’s scarcely changed since (not broken, doesn’t need fixing), for its seemingly effortless translation of a knotty moral issue into almost painfully riveting drama, and, sadly, for its continuing topicality – not least given recent developments in the US following the 2022 overturning of the 1973 Roe vs Wade Supreme Court ruling.

4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007)

It’s set in 1987, when Nicolae Ceaușescu’s regime banned virtually all abortion, not on religious or moral grounds but because he wanted to boost the Romanian population. A young university student, Găbița (Laura Vasiliu) becomes pregnant and her friend Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) goes with her to visit an abortionist (Vlad Ivanov) known only as ‘Mr Bebe’ – who for all his unpleasantness is taking a considerable personal risk himself given the illegality of what he’s doing and the pervasive presence of the Securitate, Romania’s notorious secret police.  

The result is as queasily gripping as any suspense thriller, not least thanks to Mungiu’s inspired decision (reached late in the screenwriting process) to focus on Otilia rather than Găbița, as a surrogate for the increasingly horrified viewer.

What to watch next

In reverse chronological order, R.M.N. (2022) is a portrait of a fictional Transylvanian village split between Romanian and Hungarian inhabitants and with plenty of other minorities, including Germans, Roma and Sri Lankans, the latter imported because no-one local is prepared to work for the wages that the local bakery is offering as they try to increase their output to qualify for an EU development grant. Unsurprisingly, if depressingly, the arrival of the Sri Lankans turns out to be the spark that ignites tensions that have clearly been bubbling under for some time.

Graduation (2016)

By contrast, Graduation (2016) revolves around a single family, whose daughter Eliza (Maria Drăguș) has a real chance of a potentially life-changing Cambridge scholarship. But when she’s assaulted badly enough to put her writing arm in plaster, quite aside from the psychological impact, her doctor father (Adrian Titieni) resorts to less than ethical methods of trying to secure her a result that she was hoping to gain on merit, with all the potential for disaster that this implies.

Beyond the Hills (2012) echoes the female friendship from 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in an isolated Orthodox convent. When Voichița (Cosmina Stratan) proposes taking in her orphanage friend Alina (Cristina Flutur), this sets in train a series of increasingly tragic events. These arise as much from an irresolvable culture clash between the values of the convent and those of the modern era, which Alina has already been thoroughly immersed in thanks to her having lived and worked in Germany. 

Beyond the Hills (2012)

Tales from the Golden Age (2009), a portmanteau film that Mungiu wrote and co-produced, dramatises absurd urban myths from the Ceaușescu era, to which the film’s title sarcastically refers. Mungiu was also one of five directors (the others being Hanno Höfer, Constantin Popescu, Ioana Uricaru and Răzvan Mărculescu) who oversaw individual segments, but who specifically oversaw what has been kept secret.

In stark contrast to Mungiu’s other work, it’s intentionally funny from beginning to end – in fact, anyone looking purely for straightforward entertainment may well prefer it to any of the full-strength Mungiu films discussed above.

Where not to start 

Although it caught festivalgoers’ eyes at the time, Occident (2002) is more ambitious feature debut than fully achieved masterwork. Mungiu’s recurring themes – the challenges facing Romanians in the post-Communist era, the illusory allure of the West – are already present in embryonic form, but the tricksily Tarantino-esque structure with its three overlapping acts now feels uncharacteristically gimmicky, especially when set against the later films’ far more laser-focused storytelling. But it’s still worth seeing.

R.M.N. is in cinemas from 22 September 2023.

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