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This Romanian film about immigration and vanishing jobs hits close to home

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. In the new Romanian film "R.M.N.," a village in Transylvania is thrown into turmoil when the local bakery hires workers from Sri Lanka. The movie, which is now playing in theaters, was made by Cristian Mungiu. Our critic-at-large, John Powers, thinks he's one of the best filmmakers anywhere. He says "R.M.N." cuts to the very heart of what's happening in the world right now.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: Back in 1999, if you'd asked me to guess which film cultures would be the most exciting in the next century, I would never have picked South Korea and Romania. And yet here we are. South Korea has become not just a film but a pop culture juggernaut. And while Romanian cinema is less known, it's produced a wave of filmmakers whose work dwarfs the movies coming out of, say, France or Sundance. Its leading light is Cristian Mungiu, who highlighted Romania's claim to attention by winning the 2007 Palme d'Or at Cannes with his abortion drama "4 months, 3 weeks and 2 Days." Since then, he's made only three features, but they've shown Mungiu unmatched at capturing how social forces twist people into knots.

He catches our precise historical moment in his new one, "R.M.N.," a piercing, enigmatic story that's set in bleak, present-day Romania but is profoundly relevant to what's happening almost everywhere. The main character is Matthias, played by Marin Grigore, who as the action begins, flees his job at a German slaughterhouse after headbutting a co-worker who calls him a gypsy. He returns home to a struggling Romanian village in Transylvania. Though it's just before Christmas, his arrival doesn't exactly delight his estranged wife, Ana. She's busy fretting over their young son, Rudi, who's gone mute since being traumatized by something he saw in the woods. The surly Matthias worries that Ana's concern is turning Rudy into a sissy with no survival skills. The ones who show pity die first, he tells his terrified son. I want you to die last.

Nor does Matthias' return please his ex-lover Csilla - that's Judith State - who's moved on. She manages a regional baking company that, owing to a labor shortage, hires a couple of employees from Sri Lanka. Even though many local men work abroad, the community freaks out over having foreigners in their midst, especially Asian ones. To Csilla's horror, the villagers, including the local doctor and pastor, want them gone. Mungiu based the film on an actual 2020 event in Ditrau, Romania, where 1,800 villagers voted to expel three Sri Lankans who worked at their local bakery. But while the story is true, "R.M.N." is no docudrama or slab of dreary realism. Shot in dynamic widescreen images suffused with wintry blues and grays, it offers a superbly choreographed vision of this village's life - from its holiday parade with men wearing bear costumes to its jingoist Facebook groups.

Although he's concerned with large sociopolitical issues, Mungiu treats his characters as vivid individuals bursting with human complexity, none more mysteriously so than Matthias, a lost soul torn between joining his xenophobic neighbors and trying to win Csilla's love. Fighting the currents of history, he embodies a once-admired vision of manhood - strong, patriarchal, fraught with violence - that feels out of date. His harshness runs counter to the sympathetic Csilla's desire to be part of the prosperous European Union and to embrace the heightened romantic emotions you find in Wong Kar-wai's film "In the Mood For Love," whose theme song she practices on her cello.

Mungiu's themes all come together in an astonishing 17-minute town hall meeting that's done in a single shot and features more than 25 speakers. In it, he encapsulates the fear and anger of a community that voices opinions ranging from downright nutty bigotries to reasonable complaints about the EU. We grasp the scapegoating of the Sri Lankan workers isn't merely racism but also a reaction to deep cultural trauma. Most of the villagers feel that their familiar way of life is being replaced by a Western model that disdains the comforting, old certainties about race, gender and national pride and offers in its place a dehumanized, hyper-capitalist society in which a privileged handful winds up driving Mercedes, while the rest must settle for low-paying jobs.

Such nativist populism is, of course, volatile material these days. Yet what makes Mungiu's work so good is that he doesn't tell us what to think. He's showing us the world, not preaching about it. Indeed, the letters that compose the title "R.M.N." to an imaging process akin to the MRI. That is, Mungiu is offering an anatomical scan of the Romanian body politic but not only the Romanian one. In its furious disputes over immigration, vanishing jobs, nationalism and enlightenment values, "R.M.N." depicts a reality that, like it or not, hits very close to home. Watching that overwrought town hall meeting, I can imagine one like that happening almost anywhere - in France, Britain, Sweden, Canada or even my home state of Iowa.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new film "R.M.N.," which is now playing in theaters. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about growing up with a mother, Viva, who was one of Andy Warhol's superstars. My guest will be Alexandra Auder. Her new memoir describes growing up in the Chelsea Hotel in a world of underground artists, living outside the boundaries of what most people would consider a, quote, "normal childhood." Auder is a yoga teacher, writer and actress. Her younger sister, Gaby Hoffmann, is an actress, too. I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANKE HELFRICH AND TIM HAGANS' "THINK OF ONE")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANKE HELFRICH AND TIM HAGANS' "THINK OF ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Powers is the pop culture and critic-at-large on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. He previously served for six years as the film critic.