Cristian’s Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills” took two substantial awards at its Cannes premiere — Best Screenplay and Best Actress — but this writer still can’t help but think word has been unfairly quiet about the rather phenomenal film after the Croisette cleared. Employing a much more refined aesthetic previously used in “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days,” the filmmaker’s newest tackles rigid faith, emotional/spiritual turmoil, and grave indifference. Up at an Orthodox Church in rural Romania, Voichita (Cosmina Straten) meets with estranged best friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) and allows her to temporarily stay at the convent before leaving for Germany. Both former orphans (with a deeper relationship hinted at), the newcomer disapproves of Voichita’s religious calling and believes that she will join her in the move — but when that doesn’t happen, both go to disastrous lengths to set the other on what they think is the right path.
‘Hills’ won’t convince those who aren't already fans of the the Romanian new-wave (quiet, subtle slow-burn is the rule of thumb), but those taken by the grips of their grim ambience will be treated to a smart, complex, and thoroughly rewarding film. In addition to Mungiu’s press conference, we also had the pleasure of chatting with the filmmaker mano-a-mano about the state of his country’s cinema, feedback from the Church, and what he learned from his polar-opposite first feature.
Given certain elements and progressions in the narrative, it’s no surprise that one of the head members of the Orthodox Church wasn’t happy about ‘Hills,’ but their reaction still disappointed the filmmaker nonetheless. “He thought that the film painted both the Church and Romania as a country in a bad light, but this is a special case. Nobody says it completely represents them. At the same time, this is his interpretation,” he stated. “As much as the film doesn’t represent the whole point of view of the church, I hope his position doesn’t represent the point of view of the whole church. I hope later on they will understand that you couldn't be more balanced or reasoned with the way I presented the topic and the characters.”
They likely won’t — with any strong belief system that shapes peoples’ lives, any sort of criticism can provoke defensiveness and sensitivity. Mungiu finds this behavior very troublesome and is partly why he made the film. “They don’t like things to be questioned. Not even questioned. I would say that you need to question everything. Even God has a great sense of humor and people in the Church don’t even understand that. You can’t ask people to not have an opinion about something, that’s not reasonable. This is also what the film is about, the desire about making a decision with your own head and mind and beliefs as long as the responsibility is yours and the guilt is yours. You need to make decisions on your own.”
First Film Education
One of the most surprising things about ‘4 Months’ is how much of a radical departure it is from the filmmaker’s first feature “Occident,” a little-seen comedic love story where three different characters intertwine in each other’s lives. Goofy and heartwarming (here is the unsubtitled trailer, but its tone should speak for itself), the movie doesn’t even suggest that anything remotely close to the 2007 Palme d’Or winner was in his blood, but Mungiu likened it to a great learning experience. “I learned a lot of things with ‘Occident’ that I applied later on. I wanted to work with long takes from the beginning, but it’s very difficult to do that in the beginning of your career. You don’t have the authority or strength you need as a director to impose this on the actors. But it was clear to me in which direction I was trying to go as a filmmaker, what my position was regarding film, so this is how I ended up doing ‘4 Months’ which represented what I thought cinema should be,” he said. He was quick to say that he wouldn’t rule out the lighter approach in the future — in fact, the omnibus “Tales From The Golden Age” features a much less chilly atmosphere than ‘4 Months’ or ‘Hills’ — but given the way he chooses his subjects and the long writing process that follows, whatever he ends up doing is fairly unpredictable.Hometown Reception
The films that make up the body of Romanian New Wave Cinema aren’t exactly fun, easy-going treats, but their grim, atmospheric nature has managed to charm the pants off of festival juries and cinephiles all over the world. Back in his homeland, though, the reaction is much more mild — Mungiu admits that people came to see ‘4 Months,’ but only because it had won the Palme d’Or. “There’s not much of a Romanian audience left, to be honest. We lost all the theaters that we had. A whole generation of people watched cinema in theaters, now they watch movies at home. ‘Police, Adjective’ for example and most of the films from these Romanian directors will never make more than 10-15,000 Euros in theaters, which is really very little for a film distributed there,” he lamented, adding, “I think we have more spectators around the country when we tour with them than at home, which is not necessarily a very nice thing, but it’s the reality.”
It’s no secret that box office isn’t what it used to be, but the filmmaker also chalks it up to a radical change in audience taste. “People have lost their understandings of such films, they have been exposed for twenty years already of cinema that is only entertainment. All of the sudden, the habit of understanding that there is an alternative to that, that cinema could be done in a different way, is pretty much lost," he said. "We hope that after the success we’ve had after the past ten years that someone would try to build a system of screening these films but it never happened. So it’s still us trying to promote them and give education to teenagers and young people, either through film festivals or schools where this kind of cinema can reach them.” Even so, he knowingly concludes with a laugh, “We don’t make them easy for spectators. It’s a very radical way of understanding cinema and a risky way of working.”
It’s not just the young gun directors in Hollywood that get offers left and right — even the art-house auteurs will be approached with potential directing gigs after a high-profile win at certain film festivals. Still, it seems the work wasn’t enticing enough, with Mungiu noting the unpreferable working conditions compared to what he does in Romania. “For the moment I’ve decided not to do any of them. There are two different ways of working: the way I work where I make all the decisions, or the way of working where people involve private money and you’re just the director. Not the writer, you don’t necessarily cast people, and maybe you don’t have the final cut," he explained. "The film will be the result of several points of views and you are doing part of it. I’m thinking about making a film in a different language at some point and I would like to use the great American actors, but place them closer system of working that I’m used to. This is an experience that tempts me more than just working for hire.”
It appears that the director already has certain people in mind, but for now his lips are sealed. “I’ve been talking to some very interesting and important actors, and of course I wouldn’t name any of them, but what I’d like to do is give people the opportunity to act in something completely different that is very far away from what they’re known for. I think some of them need that opportunity because they are very good but kind of captives of their public images because of the films they do," he teased. "You have to give them that opportunity that allows them to do something really different and show that. That would be tempting.”
"Beyond the Hills" will hit theaters in 2013 via IFC Films.