There are bears in it MRI, the new film by Cristian Mungiu (54), leader of the golden generation of Romanian filmmakers after the fall of communism. There is a real bear, there are bears that can be real, and men disguised as bears.
“Can you tell us something about the symbolism of the bears?” asked an Italian journalist during the well-attended press conference in Cannes last May. Then the man will sit down again opposite the phlegmatic filmmaker, as he calmly whistles back to him. ‘No, no, just stand still. I would like to ask you something. Can you tell us about the bears and their symbolism?’
The Italian, visibly surprised that he now has to interpret, in light of the many cameras, stammers that he has been thinking about this all night after watching the film. ‘I do not know. Are the bears the immigrants, the aliens?’
Maybe, answers Mungiu. ‘I do not know either. It’s no joke. My film is also about what you think about when you’ve slept that night. And sometimes you can’t put into words what a film is about. Because those words reduce the feeling. This is why cinema exists. If I could tell it, or write it down, I wouldn’t film it.’
With a smile: ‘It’s still a bit early now, one day after the very first screenings. I am still waiting for the critics, they always help me explain my films. Then I will be more specific.’
A day later, on a balcony in the festival palace in the center of Cannes, the director is already taking a closer look at his fifth feature film. Mungiu, the first Romanian Palme d’Or winner in 2007 with his abortion film 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 dayssituated MRI in a mountain village in Transylvania. There, the residents, a discordant mix of ethnic Hungarians, Germans and Romanians, many of whom work in Germany, are thrown into turmoil when the local bread factory hires migrant workers from Sri Lanka. The xenophobia, which was previously mainly reserved for the Roma community, now targets the new arrivals. Only a small part of the villagers do not see the men from Sri Lanka as a threat. Like Csilla, the childhood sweetheart of the hot-headed Matthias, who works abroad and returns to the village when his bereaved son suddenly stops talking. A Frenchman also arrives to survey the bear population.
And yes, Mungiu is aware that most people think of Transylvania as vampires, but they are not in MRI (the Romanian abbreviation for a brain scan). ‘My film is based on a real story in a village in Transylvania where the situation escalated. There were not enough staff, also because many villagers worked in other countries. It was not possible to employ Roma. Or should I put it this way: It would have led to an even bigger conflict. Therefore, it was decided to let migrant workers come, and it turned out to be very high. In the end, no one in the neighborhood wanted to buy more bread from their own factory. And the migrant workers, who were just legally present, had to be accommodated in other villages just to be safe.
“You can find discriminating people everywhere, but what interested me above all is that this happened in Transylvania, an area that has experienced all kinds of population movements, sometimes belonging to one country, then to another. And a place where the inhabitants themselves know what it is like to be a minority. Why do we behave this way towards the other? Why do we see them as enemies? Why do we think that we ourselves are allowed to work abroad, but others are not? I hope – and believe – that the film can represent feelings that are alive throughout Europe.’
Into the masterpiece MRI is a 15-minute scene, shot from one point of view and continuous, in which the residents of the village’s cultural center complain to the mayor about the migrants. It is a noisy neighborhood meeting that can easily be moved to the Netherlands if there is a fuss again about the reception of refugees.
Mungiu transforms what could easily have become a cacophony into a moving and detailed painting full of overt and disguised xenophobia. The audience is directed with great precision, yet the director’s hand is not felt. ‘You can find the right meeting somewhere on the internet. We thought and practiced everything down to the second. It’s not easy when you’re working with two hundred extras, and in between the actors who sometimes really had to scream to get over it. The first day was a disaster. To make sure the extras didn’t lose their focus, I added an extra camera. It didn’t register anything, but it helped the people at the back: they thought they were in full view too’.
He mixes all kinds of cultural expressions in his film: from parades with men dressed as bears to the ‘tradition’ of fighting after the local Hungarian-Romanian ice hockey match or the New Year’s Eve brawl between the people from the top of the mountain and the people below residents. “Everything is in there for a reason. At a certain point you see some horsemen come by – to you they might just be horsemen. But in this area the conquerors always came on horseback, for thousands of years. You heard the hoofs and you immediately fled into the forest. And then you tried to kill the invaders or they would kill the men from the village and take the women. The world today seems very civilized, but some of these principles still apply. It is deep in man.
‘Also ice hockey – it’s not about hockey, it allows us to camouflage our penchant for violence as something socially acceptable. Sports are about the tribe you belong to. Humans are very tribal and sports make you stay with your own tribe. The biggest rivalry between the Hungarians and the Romanians is contained in ice hockey. They are much better than us, because many Hungarians live in the part of Romania where it gets really cold. Romania’s national team therefore also consists of players of Hungarian origin. Not so long ago, at an international competition, they sang their regional song instead of the Romanian national anthem, causing an uproar.’
Back to the bears. They figure mainly in the enigmatic last piece of MRI, where the rational world Mungiu creates suddenly seems to change into another, possibly surreal reality. It doesn’t have to be like that, says the director firmly. ‘There is a rational explanation for everything you see in my film. Those bears aren’t going to fly all of a sudden, are they? But the bears raise a lot of questions, yes, I notice. I am trying to say something about the animal in man. They represent our attempt to tame the beast within us. Our instinctual side, which developed millions of years before other parts of our brain.
‘What you can say about the films I make, or perhaps about the Romanian trend to which I belong, is that our realism rests on the fact that people are never really coherent or act coherently. We don’t always know why we do what we do. That is the reality.
‘Ultimately I wanted to make a film about fear. About the fear of the other, of what lurks in the forest. Fear that man has always had. You can justify such fear, but feeling or experiencing fear is not a rational thing. You don’t always know exactly why you are afraid. Although today’s world offers enough explanations: every time you turn on the television, you hear that the planet is warming, that plastic is floating in the ocean, that there is plastic in the fish, even in us. And that we will all – within the framework of our children’s lives – fight for the Earth’s natural resources. People can interpret my film as another gloomy look at Romania. But it is not about Romania, or only Romania. MRI is an invitation to take a good look at your own country. A radiogram of man.’
Filmography Cristian Mungiu (Romania, 1968)
2007 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (Golden Palm, Cannes)
2009 Tales From the Golden Age (multi-director omnibus film)
2012 Beyond the Hills (Cannes Award for Best Screenplay)
2016 Baccalaureate (Best Director Award at Cannes)