What attracted me to journalism was the certain complexity and strength of the stories I found that spoke to the greater world behind them.
Christian Mungiu’s first feature since his Palme d’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Beyond the Hills tells a harrowing tale built on the unyielding foundations of religious dogma. Inspired by true events and the non-fiction novels of former BBC reporter Tatiana Niculescu Bran, the film unfolds at an Orthodox convent where pious women toil dutifully under the watchful eye of an authoritarian priest. As the film opens, Alina (Cristina Flutar) arrives in the mountainous region of Romania to visit her friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), a devout novice at the monastery. As children, the two women had formed a piercing bond at an orphanage that steps outside the lines of mere friendship. Now, Alina wants Voichita to leave her cloistered life and return with her to Germany. But when Voichita seems disclined to go, an increasingly desperate Alina becomes violent and the nuns become fearful that she’s diabolically possessed. They perform an exorcism.
With Mungiu’s latest offering, we continue to celebrate the discerning voice of a true auteur. Beyond the Hills is a sterling entrant in the so-called Romanian New Wave. Austere and realist with a style rooted in no-frills naturalism—Mungiu knows when an eliding cut or a protracted shot will clinch a scene—this is an astonishingly complex meditative work that goes far beyond thrusting viewers in a remote Moldavian enclave. A sense of struggle within a confined space, that of the monastery—a sort of existential squirminess—comes to define both a real and metaphorical one. Alina and Voichita are afflicted by their own unreliable perceptions of the world and their uncertain places in it, which ultimately leads to great tragedy. An unsettling investigation that boldly explicates the logic of ethical failure and blind obedience, this is a universal psychodrama that resonates with power.
Beyond the Hills is set to find its American theatrical release in 2013.
How was Beyond the Hills received when it premiered at Cannes earlier this year?
First of all, I didn’t allow them to hold a press screening for the film. This isn’t always true, but I find that critics are often too cynical. With the general premiere at Cannes, we had a very good response from the audience. They gave us the choice of screening the film either at 4 P.M. or 11 P.M. and we chose the earlier time slot. At 4 P.M., the true film lovers come to see it; they’re not interested in seeing what fancy clothes people are wearing. Also, since the running time for the film is 2.5 hours, it was better to show it in the afternoon. Everybody stayed for the entire screening and clapped.
It can get quite calculated.
There are certainly a lot of politics involved. Once you finish a film, you end up in this marketing stage that has little to do with your creative process as a filmmaker. Nobody really tells you that in film school, or at least they didn’t tell me. [Laughs] You have to work incredibly hard to get your work out there. And at Cannes, the biggest pressure is put on the films competing for the top prizes. The way they choose films for the competition is very intricate. It’s a mixture of both radical, independent cinema and the more mainstream movies with a lot of star power. As we all know, people don’t climb up trees to see the red carpet for the kind of films that I make because I don’t use name actors. Cannes is known for the glamour as much as it showcases the more “artful” movies.
How important was it for you to return to Cannes after picking up the Palme d’Or in 2007?
To be honest, it was very very important to make it into the competition again. It’s very difficult to get the Palme d’Or, so if you return with another film and hopefully win the Palme d’Or again—I didn’t win this time around—it confirms that your first win wasn’t an accident. I felt the pressure to deliver something that would match people’s expectations. On a side note, since Romanian films have picked up numerous awards at Cannes in the past 10 years, in a strange way, being included at Cannes isn’t impressive anymore to the people back home. It already happened too many times.
Would it be fair to say you’re more interested in telling stories that are inspired by true events? And if so, do you attribute that to your background in journalism?
It’s fair to say that about what I do, but I think it’s a big generalization. Reality is great! [Laughs] However, it comes down to what you pluck from reality. What attracted me to journalism was the certain complexity and strength of the stories I found that spoke to the greater world behind them. It doesn’t matter if it has to do with something like Communism or the world of religion that we live in today—the world is changing, yet the patterns stay the same. In film, when you decide to tell a story that’s rooted in reality, that reality will shape the pattern of your fate. The method that I employed for Beyond the Hills is the same as the one I used in my previous film. When you choose not to inject your own subjectivity into the material, your objectivity can fortify a lot of significant things. When people watch the film, they’re able to interpret it in so many different ways because they’re the ones projecting themselves onto what they see. It’s almost like holding up a mirror.
Has anyone shared an interpretation of the film with you that you found particularly unusual?
It’s interesting to see people interpret the film in this very precise and uniform way. Some people interpret the covenant as symbolizing a secluded Communist world and that was unexpected for me. It’s very important to me, for all of us, that we don’t interpret any of it literally. The film speaks about the strange ways in which violence occurs; how violence could enter this group of gentle people. If you look at the main incident at the end of the film, I of course wondered how something like that could happen and wanted to explore that in detail, moment by moment. Right now, we’re sitting here and I can tell that you’re sane and capable of making decisions for yourself. This is how the story starts out and yet, just a week later, the nuns think they can tie up this girl and make decisions on her behalf because they’re blinded by their own beliefs. How does this happen? When is the moment where the nuns suddenly feel entitled to make decisions for another person against their will? It’s not a film about exorcism. This is a film about why we do the things we do and human nature.
The ensemble cast is impressive to say the least. Is your casting process very instinctual?
It’s always instinctual. I don’t know how else it could work! [Laughs] I start by compiling a group of actors solely based on their looks and personalities that seem close to the characters that I had envisioned while writing the screenplay. You can tell a lot about a person from a photograph. I chose Cristina [Flutar] based on a picture. I understand how photographs can work at the level of vague hints, but more often than not, my impressions are accurate. In reality, Cristina might be very faraway from the character she plays, but I knew she could be her. I could gather that she was malleable through the photograph. And every text and dialogue has a certain logic to them. Some people will understand the logic very naturally and I always strive to work with those kinds of people.
The entire set was constructed specifically for the film. Why was that important?
I knew that it would be impossible to shoot in a real monastery because they simply won’t give me permission. Also, I didn’t want the actors to feel uncomfortable shooting something like this in a sacred place. Right away, I needed to convince the cast that it’s a set. It was the first time where I got to build a set and I was given an opportunity to realize exactly what I had in mind. I took clay that children play with to render the entire set for the production designer to work from. He built exactly what I asked of him because it was so clear in my mind how everything should be.
Did you get to visit the monastery where the actual event took place for inspiration?
I did, and there were small details that I wanted to incorporate into the design. I preserved the texture of the walls that I saw, for example. It’s very unlikely that an Orthodox church is left unpainted, but in this particular monastery, it was because they didn’t have the money to paint it. Some of the details had actually matched what I had imagined during the writing stage. With that said, it’s important to note that I never intended to replicate the original monastery down to its every detail. The production design was mostly inspired by the non-fiction novels. It also helped that I visited a lot of monasteries while growing up. The production design is a fictional representation of what you would imagine the actual monastery would look like if that makes sense. It was never meant to be a direct copy.
If you were to take the pulse of contemporary Romanian cinema, how would you describe it?
I think we’re more concerned about the way of making cinema than telling certain types of stories. We question what’s special to cinema that’s different from theater or any other art out there. Some common things that you notice in Romanian films are the use of very long takes, the lack of music, few edits… It’s all connected to our way of understanding the film language. We don’t want to manipulate viewers with cheap emotions, which can be obtained by anyone through the use of music and editing. I think our way of working is more complicated, yet more honest. For a lot of Romanian filmmakers, cinema is the art of examining time. In reality, time passes in a linear way, so there’s no reason to cut it up so much in the editing process and decide what’s more important than something else. In Romanian New Wave cinema, you’ll often find that we use one shot per scene.
Speaking more generally, what do you personally think films should set out to accomplish?
I don’t think cinema is just meant to entertain. Rather, I think it’s meant to explore and understand its needs as an art form. This is especially true in Romania because we don’t have the kind of pressure of commercial success that you see elsewhere in the world. We work with very small budgets and in a country where we don’t have much audience left. When you get funded by public sources, it becomes all about the films. There are no investors, so no one is waiting around hoping to get their money back. In that sense, it’s a fun place to be for cinema.