Interview: Cristian Mungiu on Romania’s Lost Generation and Going “Beyond the Hills”

The writer/director of "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" talks about his return, an unexpectedly horrific and harrowing thriller about two former orphans whose conflicting beliefs lead to...
Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur in a scene from Cristian Mungiu's film Beyond the Hills

“Beyond the Hills” is a shock to the system, no matter where you come down on Cristian Mungiu’s second film. After first grabbing the world’s attention with the Ceauşescu-era abortion drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” the Romanian filmmaker has returned with an equally tense thriller set in an Orthodox convent in Romania where a young woman named Alina (Cristina Fultur) comes to stay with her childhood friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who since became a nun after the two grew up together in an orphanage. In the intervening years, each embraced a different idea of faith, Voichita finding meaning in the church while Alina’s self-reliance has become her savior, leading her to believe she could make a life for them both in Germany if only Voichita would come with her. When she doesn’t, Alina’s attempts to get her to leave are interpreted by others in the convent as the work of the devil.

Inspired by a real-life 2005 event at a Moldavian monastery, what follows could easily have been marketed and sold as a horror film, made all the more unsettling by Mungiu’s reliance on long, unbroken takes and intricate sound design to convey action and authenticity. However, in the context “Beyond the Hills” sets up, what’s truly startling is how the filmmaker speaks to an entire generation that fell through the cracks in Romania and the tragic failure of societies large and small to protect their most precarious citizens. When the former journalist came to Los Angeles for the film’s premiere at the AFI Fest, he took the time to reflect on his country’s complicated past, a complicated shoot for “Beyond the Hills” and how he tries to cut through the clutter by making his films as pure and free from judgment as possible.

You’ve said before that the idea for the film came from a newspaper article about one religious event in particular, but how did the story evolve from this incident to a far larger story, particularly in regards to orphans?

What I liked about this story is that it was very complex, speaking about a lot of things at the same time, and it really polarized the society of Romania. You couldn’t find anybody in between. They were either completely against what happened and condemning this priest and the church in general or they were in favor of these people living in the monastery, saying, which is true, they were the only ones that did anything [for orphans]. Where was the society for these girls in this in general?

The film speaks about a social indifference, which is present nowadays, but not only in [Romania]. This is present everywhere and from this perspective, this makes this film kind of a universal pledge for tolerance, understanding and caring for the other. At the same time, it speaks about different ways of understanding love and about the necessity of making all the decisions yourself and not allowing somebody else to make decisions for you, and why? Because finally the guilt that you will feel after such an experience is very personal and then the responsibility is personal. Therefore, the decision should be personal.

At the same time, there is a social level of this story that I was interested in. It speaks about a certain way of understanding religion, which I don’t consider to just be local. Anybody understanding religion in an extreme way is the same for me. It’s about ideology. It also speaks more specifically about the way in which institutions in a country which is poor don’t really work because it’s all a method of education which goes together with poverty. When there’s little education, people will mix up, for example, the benefits of what being religious could be with just being superstitious. They are very different things and I think that a lot of what happened is because people are superstitious.

Still, I wasn’t trying to point to somebody who is guilty. Everybody was guilty in a different way, but at the same time, the society was guilty for not giving too many chances to people like them. I don’t only speak about orphanages. We’ve managed now in the last 10 to 15 years to improve the situation locally with the orphanages. But an orphanage can give a place to eat and a place to sleep, but they won’t be giving you the affection that you need. Therefore, I think that all the institutions that were present in the life or absent in the life of these girls had their part of guilt in the film, but it was not my purpose to speak about these specific aspects of the society as being the main theme of the film. The main theme of the film for me, the main concern should always be people and what’s human in what happened.

Both this film and “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” feature strong female relationships at the center of them, so I was surprised to hear when you begin writing, you don’t ever start out with gender in mind for your characters. Because of the patriarchal nature of the church, did you have to consider it more here because of the relationship to the institution?

What I mean when I’m saying I’m not gender-driven is I never start writing a story looking for a story for having women in the center of it. I’m looking for a story that has a very personal important conflict and relationship in the middle of it, but I don’t care if it’s a male or female relationship. This is really not important. I’m not specific about this. Actually, I wanted to be as far away as I could from “Four Months.” It just happened that finally it’s still about a couple of girls that have a strong friendship, but still there are a lot of things which are different.

This was not a conscious decision [for this film]. I think that it has something to do with women being more often victims of violence in society. Probably because I speak about these things that don’t work well in society, I end up having sometimes more often women as main characters. Part of the way things work in religion and society, which are very patriarchal, will lead me to speak about males pretty much making all the decisions, but this comes from the story. I let the films be shaped by the story. This is why I’m trying very often not to watch too many films and definitely not watch the films made on the same theme because I don’t think this is helpful.

Is that why you’ve described the film as being more novelistic than cinematic?

Novelistic means for me that this is a film which is very, very much story-driven. I don’t have things which are being improvised on the set. The other detail is in a novel you have all the time in the world to speak about a lot of things which matter, give a lot of details and not just focus on the main storyline. This is how this film is being made. It’s not only the story of the girls that matters for me and that I pay attention to. It’s also the relationship between the priest and the church. It’s the relationship to the institutions, to the orphanage. It’s about the choices of the people that start their lives after getting out of these institutions, where will they go? It’s about that foster family [of one of the girls]. It’s about the community of churchgoers. So it’s very much about the world that surrounded them, the circumstances in which they acted and this is way closer in my perspective to the way in which a novel works than to the way in which certain film works where everything is precise about the storyline and the purpose of the narrative comes from this.

Because you come from a journalistic background, has that shaped what you’ve wanted to do as a filmmaker?

Working as a journalist, of course, had an influence because as you can see with the subject of this film, I’ve preserved this taste for very strong stories. As a journalist, you feel this would interest people, so I’m reading the newspapers everyday, just for my pleasure. But very often I find stories that are really interesting, so I’m just keeping them, lacing them together for the moment when I start writing. There’s something else that helped me from my period working as a journalist — a style of storytelling, a style I first created in words. When I write, I don’t make any comment. I never start with me seeing something. It’s always about something happening. I describe what happens and then I preserve this style in the writing of screenplays and later on in the style of shooting. It’s a way of not having yourself present in the story that you’re telling because this helps the audience have a genuine view on the story. I don’t want to push my own beliefs about religion or whatever about the subject to the audience. I’m just trying to help them experience the emotion, get the atmosphere and ask some questions. Eventually, not only about what they see in the film, but about values which are important in every day life.

Since you had people of various faiths working on the film, did you encourage collaboration in order to bring more perspective to the film you were making?

To be precise, it’s not about different religions. It’s people that were religious in different degrees. All the people that I worked with for this film, they are all baptized as Orthodox. This is the dominant religion in Romania. But there’s a great difference between [being devout and] just being baptized – you can be a complete atheist later on. Some actors and crew members were very religious, like people that don’t work on Sundays, go to church everyday, they go to confess. One lady, [who plays] the late mother superior [in the film], asked permission from her confessor to act in the film, which is an extreme way of understanding your profession. He told her “Okay, yes, that’s your profession, go and do this, but defend our cause.” I don’t know which cause this would be to be honest, but there’s a way of putting it.

Then there were mildly religious people, which is to say people who respect these values, but they are not extremely religious, and people that are completely against [religion]. It wasn’t easy to work with them, but what I did, I was trying to make this difference between reality and fiction, between personal beliefs and the beliefs of the characters and to make them understand that, if cinema works, it needs to work with its own values. The truth of the moment is much more important and we shouldn’t pollute the film with our own personal opinion.

But of course, everybody’s opinion somehow shaped the film. What I was trying to do is make sure that we are right from every other characters’ point of view. We never wanted to be judgmental of any of the characters, not the religious, not the doctors. I was trying to write the dialogue and encourage them when they were playing the part to defend them as much as they could – defend them in the sense of being convinced of the way in which the character was understanding life from his or her perspective.

In trying to make the deadline for Cannes, this went through a rushed post-production. Obviously, that had to make things less comfortable, but is it in any way helpful when you have less time to dwell on certain decisions?

It wasn’t helpful because what happens is one day you are overexposed to your own material and you can’t make rational decisions any longer. But it was the only way to be ready on time. I brought the editor on the set with an editing booth and this helped me because the film was very, very complex, the screenplay was very long and watching the material every night and seeing the film develop – I shot as much as I could in chronological order – helped me to understand which of the moments I wrote were not absolutely necessary. This was very helpful.

Having very little time after we finished the shooting on post-production, that was not helpful and it was not a creative decision. We couldn’t do it any other way. Even if this film is shot with very long takes, we spent a lot of time in trying to find the right version of the editing because for the first time in my life, I shot more material than absolutely necessary for the film. I shot some three hours and I wanted to have a two-and-a-half-hour film, so I had a lot of variants of editing. This gave me very little time at the end for sound and sound really matters a lot for a film that doesn’t have music. We spent some 14 hours a day for several weeks in Paris working for the sound and at some point, you’re very tired. But there are scenes which I like a lot in the film that rely exclusively or primarily on sound.

[MINOR SPOILERS] There’s a scene at the end of the film where after Voichita unties Alina, she gets back to her cell and she hears some footsteps on the snow outside, but actually you don’t see anything. It’s all in her head and it’s a way of understanding how sounds work in film and how you can be very close to the assumption of somebody just using sound and no images. [SPOILERS END]

You’ve said making this film, you learned certain things about yourself as a filmmaker. Are you feeling more comfortable with what you can do?

It’s not about learning something new between these two films. It’s about learning some things after starting work as a filmmaker. You change, you develop. There are things that you think about. You start to master your means as a filmmaker and you start thinking about your means a lot. And this is what I do. At the end, spectators just watch the film, but I’m not abusing my means. I think a lot about what I can do and what I can’t do as a filmmaker to avoid being manipulative.

This is why the film is shot with these long takes. Actually, it’s much more difficult to shoot like this, but for me the film is not only about the story. It’s about a statement about how I understand cinema in that particular moment. And these long takes speak about the necessity of cinema to speak about how times passes in reality. If there’s something particular about cinema apart from all the other arts, it’s that cinema can portray how time passes. But for this, you have to give up editing. Editing is just an interference for me as an author. You will just wave and signal to people what’s more important and you will cut off moments which are not important. Part of my ideology about filmmaking is that everything is important. You can’t skip in life the moments that you don’t like. You have to live them all and this is why I preserve this time in the film as well.

“Beyond the Hills” opens in New York at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal. It will become available nationally on demand on March 14th and expand into wider release on March 15th.

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