Though it took some time (and a stopover for an omnibus titled “Tales from the Golden Age”), Romanian auteur and Palm d’or recipient Cristian Mungiu has finally returned with a new full length film, “Beyond The Hills,” another penetrating, finespun narrative that took both Best Screenplay and Best Actress awards at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Here, the director starts off with a true story: Voichiţa (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) spent their childhood together in an orphanage before the two went their separate ways, the former becoming a nun in rural Romania and the other working odd-jobs in Germany. After years apart, the two decide to meet and it’s soon revealed, very subtly, that they had more than just a close friendship. But Voichiţa is supremely dedicated to her faith, and when she refuses a plan to leave the convent for Germany, Alina does all that she can to prove to her friend that her way of life is wrong.
Mungiu’s latest tackles the big topics of love, religion, and society in profoundly contemplative ways, and while it’s not the breeziest of films, it leaves a powerful lasting impression. We caught it at Cannes and loved it, deeming it “gorgeously lensed” and “deceivingly complex.” Thanks to the wonders of technology, the director was able to hit the New York Film Festival early for press conferences with critics, and we’ve gathered some of the things he’s talked about below. New Yorkers ought to check this one out, and you can find its three screening dates here.
Those who have seen Mungiu's previous opus “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” (or almost any film considered to be part of the Romanian new-wave) will be familiar not only with the glacial pacing and frigid atmosphere, but also with the lengthy single takes that tend to make up these films. It's no surprise that 'Hills' continues this tradition, but the director admits that part of it was experimentation. "For this film I was trying to check if these kind of long takes could be used for periods of fiction which are longer than 48 hours," he acknowledged. "The screenplay for '4 Months' lasted roughly 34 hours, and the time period this movie takes place in is about a couple of weeks, and I wasn't sure if using these long takes could work for such an extended period of time, so I wanted to try it out."
As for why he generally wields this aesthetic, it has a lot to do with making sure the flow of each scene isn't interrupted. "Every time you cut, you make it known that you are present -- you make a choice, you decide when you're going to show a close up, and so forth. I try to make myself as a director as invisible as possible." Though this is his preferred method, he does note that they are far from painless, and the amount of takes he orders might even make David Fincher blush. "We'd shoot 10 takes just to know where we were, 10 additional takes for rehearsal, and 30-40 takes after that. It's very difficult and very complicated for the actors, but at the same time, when you don't cut, they reach a certain stage of energy on their own. Blocking long takes is very complicated because the choreography of everyone in the shot is very precise, and if anything goes wrong, you have to stop and start all over again," he explained. He also elaborated on how important the rhythm of each scene was, saying that "all of the rhythm of the film is in the rhythm of the shot, you can't add any more in the editing. What you've shot you put together, and that's it. So you have to be conscious of this on set, to make sure that the right rhythm of the actions is there."
Based on a true story, the filmmaker explains that the real Alina’s death has still not been cleared, and he acknowledges the messiness of the situation. "In a case like this, the results are very subjective. Say there are two medical experts, one set said she died on the way to the hospital, the others said that she was already dead before they left. In real life, it took place closer to summer, so one says she is dehydrated. I'd say my film gives you enough hints to show that she died of natural causes, but I also didn't think the details don't make a big difference for the film," he decided.
Mungiu was actually more interested in something else: not the how, but the why. "Was she sacrificing herself to show her friend that her path was wrong? They were very harsh to her, and I feel that it's the only logical reason that she had to stay -- she felt her friend was taking the wrong path." Considering this explanation only makes the ending sequence that much more unnerving.
"Any kind of social control is not good, whether it comes from a church or some other single organized body," Mungiu stated, with the latter example hinting at something more towards the country's previous communist government.
"The film is a pledge for the education that the people didn't have during communism, before they were able to have the right to decide for themselves. It's important that we all decide with our will about ourselves, but our decisions are only good as long as we have a good education," explained the director, a sentiment that is clearly present in the way the convent primitively treats Alina later in the film."It's one thing where you give people the freedom to decide, but to keep them in the state of mind where they think they don't have information, they don't get education. They are free but don't have the means to make the proper decisions. I don't think communism stopped in 1989, it stopped then as a political system but the consequences will be around for a long while."
However, the filmmaker doesn't blame the movement entirely for the peoples' general coldness, or what he calls, their "indifferent" behavior. "Indifferent thoughts are from a lack of education that people get, it's kind of an individualism that is present in all of society that prevents us from caring for another person as we should. This case of indifference comes in a country where people claim to be very religious. In Romania, 85-90% declare themselves to be Orthodox at home, and my belief is that it's not important that you go to church every Sunday and you know all the habits. This is on the surface," he clarifies. "If you really got what's important in the moral sense of Christianity then you have to understand that you have to be a social person and you have to evolve and help others, which is not a political issue. The film speaks of this but also of guilt. I was wondering who was guilty and why, and the connection of the communist system: the people and the social institution should have acted in the right moment to help these girls."