Cristian Mungiu | Interview
The director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days examines a friendship torn between medievalism and modernity.
You might wonder, at least initially, about the time period in which Beyond the Hills is set. There are traces of modernity—trains, a gas station—but when the action moves to a monastery outside of town, the proceedings acquire a medieval air.
Director Cristian Mungiu chides me a bit when I ask about that sense of disorientation. “It’s ambiguous for whomever doesn’t really have any kind of information about the territory,” the Romanian filmmaker, 44, says in fluent English. His movie concerns a specific phenomenon in contemporary Romania: the proliferation of Orthodox Christianity in a country where 90 percent of the population now identifies with that strain of religion. (Though, Mungiu adds, “They don’t necessarily act as religious people.”)
That’s the context for Beyond the Hills, whose leads shared a Best Actress prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Mungiu took home a screen-writing award. Like his previous movie, the Palme-winning illegal-abortion suspenser 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), Beyond the Hills focuses on a female friendship tested by an extraordinary circumstance. It opens on Alina (Cristina Flutur) paying a visit to her friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), with whom, it’s strongly implied, she was romantically linked when they lived at an orphanage. Released from that protective environment, Voichita has sought refuge in a cloistered church, led by a charlatan (Valeriu Andriuta) skeptical of Alina’s outside influence. Eerily, everyone calls him “Papa.” Alina wants to bring Voichita to Germany, where she now resides—and isn’t about to leave until she succeeds.
What follows plays like a compendium of recent festival hits: a cross between Silent Light and Martha Marcy May Marlene. For the director, though, any similarities stem from the material; he hasn’t seen some of the titles I cite. “I don’t have any conscious influence from cinema,” Mungiu says, sitting on a terrace in Cannes a few blocks north of the Croisette frenzy. The film’s austerity and slowness, he says, simply reflect the monastic setting.
Beyond the Hills offers few easy answers, seeing culpability in the actions of its protagonists, the church and the Romanian medical bureaucracy. Although the plot was inspired by a real-life 2005 incident, you should resist the urge to Google. The movie plays optimally on first viewing, when one has only a scant sense of where it’s heading.
Baptized as orthodox but not schooled in a faith, Mungiu notes that he sees the film as anti-fanaticism, not anti-religion. “I believe in some values in which religion also believes,” he says. “But I didn’t get there through religion. I ended up believing that, yes, it’s okay to do good, to try to understand each other.” He doesn’t judge Voichita’s decision to join the sect. “It allows you to survive from today until tomorrow,” he says. “She needs some time to understand that these values come, unfortunately, with this idea that you have to give up a lot of rational thinking.”
One of Beyond the Hills’ most striking attributes, as in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is Mungiu’s use of long takes: Your eye wanders around the frame, suddenly fixating on Voichita in the background, say, as she reacts to those around her. “Whenever you cut, you will signal to the spectator that this is more important than this,” Mungiu explains. “I am trying all the time not to be manipulative as a director. Just stage a situation and let the people judge what happens over there without pushing it.”
Beyond the Hills opens Friday 15 at Landmark’s Century Centre.