Cristian Mungiu on his stark, stunning ‘Beyond the Hills’

Pub date March 12, 2013
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionPixel Vision

Cristian Mungiu — one of the main reasons everyone’s all excited about the Romanian New Wave — follows up his Palme d’Or winner, 2007’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, with another stark look at a troubled friendship between two women. Beyond the Hills‘ Voichita and Alina (Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, who shared the Best Actress prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival; for his part, Mungiu won Best Screenplay) were BFFs and, we slowly realize, lovers while growing up at a Romanian orphanage.

When they aged out of the facility, the reserved Voichita moved to a rural monastery to become a nun, and the outburst-prone Alina pinballed around, doing a stint as a barmaid in Germany before turning up in Voichita’s village, lugging emotional baggage of the jealous, needy, possibly mentally ill, and definitely misunderstood variety. It can’t end well for anyone, as all involved — dismissive local doctors, Alina’s no-longer-accommodating foster family, the priest (Valeriu Andriuta), and the other nuns — would rather not spend any time or energy caring for a troubled, destitute outsider. Even Voichita can only look on helplessly as an exorcism, a brutal and cruel procedure, is decided upon as Alina’s last, best hope.

Based on a real 2005 incident in Moldavia, Mungiu’s unsettling film is a masterpiece of exquisitely composed shots, harsh themes, and naturalistic performances. I conducted the following email interview with Mungiu ahead of Beyond the Hills‘ Fri/15 Bay Area release.

San Francisco Bay Guardian Both Beyond the Hills and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are about female friendships — troubled female friendships, to be specific, with shared secrets and repressed emotions. What interests you about these relationships, and telling these kinds of stories?

Cristian Mungiu My films are story-driven rather than character driven and I always start from some true story that I heard about. So, as much as these films could be depicted as films about female relationships, for me the starting points were different. For 4 Months, I mostly wanted to talk about freedom, compromise, responsibility, and circumstances when such an important issue as maternity is involved. In Beyond the Hills I was interested in understanding how violence progresses in a small community and I needed to talk about different kinds of love, social responsibility, and indifference, about the differences between religion and superstition, about the relationship between the level of education and free will.

I don’t think in terms of male/female characters when I think about my characters: I believe that as a storyteller, you either understand the human nature or you don’t — gender is irrelevant.

SFBG Both films also deal with medical issues, though in Beyond the Hills Alina’s suffering is more abstract and seems to be tied into a number of factors: her illness is mental, not physical; also, she is poor and has no family looking out for her. Does the portrayal of doctors and hospitals in Beyond the Hills reflect Romania’s treatment of “outsiders,” and what do you hope audiences take away from this?

CM It would be wrong to consider that the portrayal of the doctors in Beyond the Hills can be generalized to all doctors in Romania nowadays. I don’t think that any film should be taken as a relevant portrait of a country — it would be the same mistake we use to make in the ’80s, thinking about US as being primarily a country of mobsters (after watching The Godfather — that was very popular and highly appreciated).

I would rather say that Beyond the Hills speaks about dysfunctional institutions in general, about the side effects of incompetence and of superstitions in society — and it shows how empathy for the one next to you is influenced by poverty and how the decision to help him is influenced by your level of education.

SFBG Beyond the Hills might show the most realistic (and therefore, probably one of the scariest), take on an exorcism ever filmed. Why did you choose to take on a topic that’s primarily horror-movie element? Is it true the film is based on a true incident, and how did you hear about it?

CM The film is inspired by a couple of non-fictional novels documenting a real incident that happened in Romania in 2005. It was on the first page on the newspapers for weeks and months, it shattered the Romanian public opinion, and it generated a more general debate about the role of religion in the modern society and about some of the rituals in churches.

The film’s the main story line is quite close to what happened in reality so I didn’t choose to bring in an exorcism scene — it was pretty much there already — I just tried to treat it as non-spectacular and as realistic as possible, as it was important for me to avoid the possible tabloid perspective about this issue. It is part of a certain kind of realism that we are looking for in our films — a realism which is present at all levels — from the way of treating the subject to the
way of shooting and to handling filmic time — every scene is depicted in just one continuous shot in the film, no matter how complex or long it is.

SFBG Nuns are another familiar movie element — I’m thinking of everything from The Sound of Music to Sister Act to (most closely) Black Narcissus. How do you go about recreating such a private, closed-off world, and what were the challenges involved in doing that?

CM The greatest challenge always is to fight stereotypes: yours and others. I based my portrayal of the nuns on my observation about religious people, about the psychology of people living in small isolated communities and on my experience of talking to institutionalized children – but at the end of the day, again, we need to understand that nuns are also human beings with emotions, fears, doubts, and so on.

One of the major challenges was to instruct the actresses about the appropriate behavior and attitude their character would have in each given situation and to specifically ask them never to be judgmental about their characters. The screenplay was already depicting in detail most of the monastery routine — and before the shooting we sent the girls to a monastery — to spend some time with some real nuns because there are small things that, as an actor, you need to notice yourself.

SFBG The stark, austere landscape of Beyond the Hills is practically a character in the story. How did you find that location and what approach did you take to filming to heighten the story’s elements? I especially appreciated how key moments — Alina being carried into the church, for instance — happen in the background of long shots.

CM We started by visiting the site of the real incident and then we scouted for a barren hill with some solemnity, no electricity poles around — and having a direct view to a small town. It was quite a complicated scouting and finally we came across this hill — some 100 kilometers up- north Bucharest — where we built the whole Monastery and all the surrounding buildings.

When you decide to only shoot long takes you need to learn how to use the depth of field, the off camera, and the sound. My idea was that it’s more important to show the characters’ reaction to what happens than what happens — and therefore I decided for example that in the most of the violent scenes we’ll be with the camera on the nuns and not on Alina. A crucial decision regards the wideness of the framing — we try to match it always with the content of the scene and with its degree of intimacy. But filmmaking is not a science and you need to keep your mind free and your eyes open, to experiment on the set and to feel which is the most powerful and appropriate way of shooting each moment.

SFBG What does the title mean to you?

CM It refers to realities which are not in full view, which happen somewhere deep down — in our mind or in the world — but I don’t think film titles should be perfectly explicit in connection to the story.

Beyond the Hills opens Fri/15 in Bay Area theaters.