Cannes 2022: The Godfather on a French beach, RMN blurs boundaries

Francis Ford Coppola’s gangsta-classic drew massive crowds at the Cinema de Plage: once the seats were full, people sprawled on the sand.

A man, sacked from his job at a slaughter-house, makes his way home on a snow-laden night, hitching rides. As Mathias (Martin Gregore) enters his tiny town in rural Transylvania, and gets off in front of his house, we see a fox run out of the bushes. Clearly, this is a place where people live in close proximity with nature: there are lumbering bears in the forest which abuts the town, and there are beasts who live in the houses.
‘RMN’, Cristian Mungiu’s slow burn of a movie pulls back from the specific– a man who is at odds with his wife and his life — to the universal — townspeople riven by a visceral suspicion of the other. And that other could be ethnic Romanians (gypsy is not an endearing term in those parts), Bulgarians, Germans, and a group of Sri Lankan immigrants, the latter becoming the butt of easy, collective hatred. These people are dirty, yells a woman at a town meeting, face contorted in fury. And they put their hands in our bread! She is referring to the Sri Lankans employed by the local bakery where they work long hours for very little money, but we can hear echoes of this kind of anger against ‘outsiders’ everywhere.
Mungiu continues with this brand of naturalistic cinema which goes along, picking up narrative threads, erupting into shockingly powerful moments. In this microcosm, set in a small European town, preparing for a white Christmas, there is a larger story which speaks to snowballing provincialism, xenophobia, and ugly racism around the world.
Mathias’s ailing father’s MRI (abbreviated to RMN in Romanian, hence the title) hints at a serious illness. His wife is clearly estranged, and his son has been refusing to speak ever since he has seen something terrifying in the woods. Off he goes for succour to his old flame Csilla (Judith Slate) who manages the bakery efficiently, and is perhaps the only one who treats the Sri Lankans with empathy and respect. Csilla at first resists Mathias’s overtures, only to succumb all over again. But this uneasy truce is a precursor to the vile outbursts which lead to the town being divided amongst its ethnicities, and united against the most vulnerable group, the Sri Lankans.
RMN makes a powerful case for blurring boundaries between people. The reason why the Sri Lankan immigrants get the job is economic: the factory gets EU grants in return for those jobs. Those immigrants are not grabbing what should rightfully belong to the locals; the locals have no desire to work so much for so little, so it should have been a win-win all round. But hatred overpowers reason. We will not buy your bread, declare the townspeople. In effect, they are saying, we will ruin you. We will make sure you have no source of income, so that you are forced to leave. Sounds familiar?
The beauteous Marion Cotillard plays unforgiving sister to Melvil Poupaud’s agonised brother in Cannes veteran Arnaud Desplechin’s ‘Brother and Sister’. The enmity between them is deep, but nowhere in the nearly two-hour long film do we find concrete reasons for it, even though we see them in confrontational mode right from the get go.
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Alice is a stage actress about to begin a new play, Louis is skulking in his farm far away from civilisation. A terrible accident involving their parents brings them face to face again, with flashpoints and childhood trauma (sexual abuse is hinted at) coming to the fore. Cottilard and Poupaud deliver intense performances, as they circle around each other, but after a point, our inquisitiveness turns into indifference: what is with these two fifty-something siblings? Will they, or will they not reconcile? In between, another gorgeous actor gets a short shrift: you wish Golshifteh Faharani, playing the brother’s wife, had a little more to do.
The highlight of my day was the open-air, on-the-beach screening of the restored version of ‘The Godfather’, which is celebrating its fiftieth year in style. Francis Ford Coppola’s gangsta-classic drew massive crowds at the Cinema de Plage: once the seats were full, people sprawled on the sand behind us. I’ve seen the film many times before, but the promise of this very Cannes experience pushed other things to the side: in Don Corleone’s immortal words, it was an offer I couldn’t, and didn’t want to, refuse.