What's exciting about seeing new movies at festivals before critics get to them is making up your own mind, especially about films that are fashioned outside the box of what is deemed commercial or accessible to audiences. If you don't go to the first screening, though, you are subject to buzz–often a constantly repeated meme about a film that can be dangerous to hear because it may not predict your own experience of the film at all. A case in point is Cristian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills" (March 8), which IFC picked up sight unseen before the Cannes Film Festival based on their prior relationship with the Romanian auteur's last feature, the Palme d'Or-winning "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days." The meme? "Too long."
But the Cannes jury rewarded the rare and glorious 35 mm "Beyond the Hills" with a shared Best Actress prize for its two non-pro actresses, Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, as well as a screenplay prize for Mungiu.
The shortlisted Oscar submisssion from Romania for best foreign film plays long for someone who expects conventional pacing and may not understand Mungiu's rigorous aesthetic, which requires that he not cut within a scene. He can trim the front or the back, but not the middle. He explains his philosophy–and how challenging it is to execute– in our video interview below. "It is not fair to tell the spectator if something is important or not important," he says. "The camera doesn't move unless something triggers it."
This forces Mungiu to be clever about choreographing 12-minute pieces of action, adding off-screen information, and relying heavily on the use of sound. And his actors benefit, he says: "They are given space to develop emotions without cutting," sometimes via as many as 30 takes.
It's been five years since his last film; in the meantime the filmmaker had a second child, finished building his house, produced documentaries, participated in the 2009 180-minute omnibus film "The Golden Age," "two films in one," he says, which "took a while," and directed commercials, including one for the Orange telephone company.
You can see the weariness on Mungiu's face as he recalls what a wrenching experience this film was, shooting multiple takes with his actors in the extreme winter cold. "The camera freezes at minus 15 degrees," he points out matter-of-factly. The clouds of breath rising from the actors' mouths? Not CG.
And this isn't light subject matter. Mungiu found a 2005 newspaper report of a woman who died strapped to a wooden cross during an exorcism and asked, "How is this possible?" He made up his own story about two young women in love, one who has seen the world since she left the tough orphanage where they comforted each other, and a second who lives safe within a nunnery run by a radical priest. The worldly girl tries to save the cloistered one, by trying to break through the barriers around her friend, mental, spiritual and physical. But everyone treats her as if she is crazy, even possessed by the Devil.
"The film is trying to help you understand why they were like this," says Mungiu. "It's important not to blame them without understanding them." This style of filmmaking "requires patience from the audience because it doesn't have the regular logic of film, it needs to accumulate a lot of details you need before judgement happens."
That said, Mungiu is open to figuring out a new aesthetic going forward: "Later on I want to understand what is my idea of cinema." Whatever he decides, I'm there. This guy is the real deal.