By Alec Kubas-Meyer | Criticwire October 16, 2012 at 10:20AM
When director Cristian Mungiu hit the international stage, he did it in the most prestigious way possible, winning a Palme d’Or at Cannes with his second feature, "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," and rightly so. Since its release in 2007, Mungiu has been a part of several films as writer and/or co-director, but his newest project, "Beyond the Hills," is the first time he’s truly been back at the helm. "Beyond the Hills" premiered earlier this year at Cannes and won the award for Best Screenplay as well as a double award for Best Actress, taken home by stars Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, who played the lead roles of Alina and Voichita. Based on "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" and "Beyond the Hills" alone, Mungiu can safely be called an amazing director of drama, but his talents go well beyond that genre. Take, for example, his comedy (and feature debut), "Occident."
"Occident" tells the story of a man named Luci (Alexandru Papadopol) and his wife Sorina (Anca-Ioana Androne) who hit a rough patch after being forced from their home. As would become the norm with Mungiu’s films, it doesn’t have a happy ending, but for fans of his dramatic works, the trip is bizarre. In need of a job, Luci finds himself in a beer mascot costume and befriends a young woman, Mihaela (Tania Popa), dressed as a cell phone. Their first meeting is wonderful, and for the entire scene Mihaela’s face is completely covered. It’s just an inflatable beer bottle talking to an inflatable cell phone about relationship troubles. There’s nothing comedic about the conversation, but the context is so ridiculous that it’s impossible not to laugh. The entire film is like that.
Despite its lighter tone, there are still shades of Mungiu’s later work in "Occident," with the excellent use of long takes as well as high-quality dialogue. Proper use of framing and blocking means that there is never a reason to edit, and doing so would just distract from the drama (or the comedy). One shot early in the film, where Luci is walking through a dark hallway banging on doors, is very similar to one Mungiu would reuse in "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," and it is one of the better indications of how his style would evolve. Mungiu has continued to return to shots he likes; one of the most famous in “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days,” where the main character, Otilia, sits at a table with her boyfriend’s family and some of their friends, reappears in “Beyond the Hills,” when Voichita finds herself the focal point of a shot in which she plays almost no part.
"Beyond the Hills," Mungiu’s most technically impressive film to date, tells the story of a pair of young women trying to rekindle their friendship. The concept is not particularly fresh, but the setting, a Romanian Orthodox monastery, and its basis in a horrific true event, give it new meaning. The film goes even further than "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" in its use of naturalistic handheld camerawork; Mungiu’s ability to create real-time intensity is incredible, and there is far more of it on display here. His long takes are far more complex as well: things are set on fire, people are tied up, and there is a real sense that things are actually happening. When I learned that some of the shots in the film were done up to 40 times, I was absolutely shocked. So much of the film seems like it could only have been done once, with chaos and action that would be impossible to reproduce. In "Occident" and "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," I never really felt like a scene couldn’t have been done two or three or forty times. "Beyond the Hills" constantly impressed me.
Despite all that, "Beyond the Hills" is not quite as good as "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days." I plan to see it again without any incorrect preconceived notions; I expect I will like it more that way. Even so, I’m quite sure it won’t be one of my favorite films of the next decade. But it’s still a very worthwhile film, and it shows how Mungiu’s style has evolved. Over his last few features (and the other projects he was involved in, such as the comic anthology "Tales from the Golden Age"), he has developed a distinct look and feel for his films. Mixed with sharp writing that keeps his work interesting even when the dialogue seems like nothing more than banter, he should absolutely be seen as one of the most unique directors working today, if not one of the best.
Alec Kubas-Meyer has hugged Cristian Mungiu, which is super awesome. He is currently an undergraduate student at Sarah Lawrence college and an Associate Editor for Flixist.