Director's Cut: Cristian Mungiu ('Beyond the Hills')

Romanian cinema is in trouble, though you might not know it. It’s been a banner month, in a way, with Calin Peter Netzer becoming the first director of that nation to win the Golden Bear at Berlin, while Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills” -- which won the Best Screenplay award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival -- is opening this weekend. For the American audience, it might seem as if the almost decade-long renaissance in Romanian filmmaking is still going strong.

Yet there is something else happening, a problem that goes beyond the critical reception of these films and the awards they receive. Last summer, a new government was formed in Romania from an alliance of conservatives and social democrats, under the leadership of Prime Minister Victor Ponta. The administration has already made sweeping changes to the way Romania supports its artists, drastically cutting the available national lottery funds for cinema and changing the structure and mission of the Romanian Cultural Institute. The Institute, which formerly promoted Romanian art and artists abroad, has been directed instead to “uphold the identity” of the Romanian diaspora.

This shift toward a simplistic nationalism inevitably discourages honest and prosaic portrayals of life in Romania. Many of the best films of the past decade were seen by some at home as irresponsible representations of Romania, and may not have been funded at all if the new policy had been in place years ago (a point producer Ada Solomon made when accepting the Golden Bear last month). No film is a better example of the work that might be prevented than “Beyond the Hills,” and no film is a better example of exactly why we should be worried. In the context of these political changes, I spoke to Cristian Mungiu about Romanian film culture and the universality of his work.

The film is a fictionalized account of a 2005 incident that happened at a monastery in rural Romania. A girl was killed by a priest as the result of an exorcism gone wrong, creating a media storm that led to two non-fiction novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran. Mungiu was determined to avoid the sensationalism of the press when writing his screenplay. “[It was] a very unhappy context in which people had to react to something that completely overpassed them,” he explains. “It was [Bran] that wrote the books and took the effort to make a little research. I was making just the effort to not be spectacular and avoid this kind of mainstream direction in which the subject could be told.”


Yet “Beyond the Hills” has been at times received primarily as a brazen attack on the Romanian Orthodox Church, both by critics and religious authorities. This misses the point, and simplifies the film in a way that ignores the universality so constant in recent Romanian cinema. The character of the misguided and eventually murderous priest, for example, is very consciously written to be unlike the real-life perpetrator of the crime.

“If you watch him in reality and you search for interviews with him, you will see a much more fanatical kind of extreme Orthodoxy... It's not what I wanted,” he elaborates.  “That was too particular, that was not relevant. I see in this incident the opportunity to speak about a lot of important things. The real situation was like an accident of incompetence. I can't spend two years of my life making a film about this. This story the way I shaped it speaks about how relative good and evil are, it speaks about the importance of making decisions yourself, about free will, about the way in which violence advances into a community, about ways in which evil manifests itself today. It speaks about an indifference which I see in society nowadays. And it makes this very precise difference between church as an institution, faith as a personal belief, religion and superstition. They all coexist and I had the opportunity of speaking about all this.”

This approach takes a very local problem, an event that could easily be considered embarrassing and not worthy of presenting to the international audience by the current Romanian government, and turns it into a work of art with implications that go well beyond the Romanian context. It is about social control, profound faith, and love. And that love is between two young women, an additional element that Mungiu added to the initial true story.

“First of all, this is completely taboo for the Orthodox Church. Yet I was trying to refer as little as possible to any kind of physical relationship between them. What really matters is to speak about the desire of affection. I speak about a couple of girls that grew up in an orphanage, without getting affection from anybody else. Each of them represents for the other the need to have somebody loving you and caring for you,” he explains, again moving beyond the specific social politics of the institution.

“We used to say in the Orthodox religion that ‘God is love.’ If God is love then you can interpret in a way that this girl of Valina was very religious. Her passion to make her friend understand that she is not on the right path came from a very strong belief."

“Beyond the Hills” should be valued precisely for this, its most borderless ideas. Mungiu and his colleagues take Romanian stories, most of them simple in narrative scope, and turn them into daring epics of form (think “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days but also Radu Muntean’s  “Tuesday, After Christmas” and Cristi Puiu’s “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”). And while these filmmakers all have their own unique style they are often tied together by their use of long takes, the foundation of an almost minimalist realism.

“Cinema is a lot about how time flows,” Mungiu posits. “A long take has a lot to do with how time flows. If you think about what's specific for cinema as an art, this is one of the few things you can put your finger on. It's about the flow of time which is continuous, which cinema can describe on condition that you don't cut. Whatever happens in our films, it's in real time… I think it is much more natural when your inspiration comes from reality, to abstain from using music and editing and it gives the spectator the possibility of witnessing the way things develop in a much more honest way.”

This is the core of the contribution that Romanian filmmakers have made to international cinema over the course of the last decade, this uncompromising way of making movies. “Everything is important for cinema,” he elaborates. “This is a point of view about cinema. This is why the films are long and slow. Of course you have to create the rhythm, but the rhythm is in the shot. You don't create it any other way. This is it. We can't skip a moment now, so why skip it in the film as well.”

Yet this does not mean that Mungiu is trying to imitate non-fiction film: “Films shouldn't re-create what happened. I don't have any obligation, this is not a documentary and it's not important. The important thing is to bring all these layers together so that people meditate upon their own values. What do you believe about your own religious beliefs when you watch this film?”

In the end, this is the most important question. The trouble in Romania right now is that the conversation is avoiding it entirely. Much of the negative reaction to Mungiu’s film and others, most recently “Child’s Pose,” has come from those who have not yet seen the film. Theaters are closing across the country, and audiences rarely have access to the work that is being so lauded abroad.

This was a problem even before the new policies around cinema, as Mungiu explains. “The greatest respect that we receive is not for the films, it's for the international recognition we receive for the films. Most of the people that love me back home and respect what I do never watch my films. They like that I am appreciated and that in some sort of way this is diffused for Romanian values.”

Unfortunately, some in government now perceive that the films themselves are detrimental to “Romanian values,” regardless of the awards. Moreover, without an audience interested in these films, it may be difficult to counter that argument in a meaningful and effective way. Mungiu is currently organizing his own festival, as a way to grow film culture in Romania. The event is now in its third year, showing 25 to 30 features that have played Cannes. It’s been a success, he says: “People crowd to watch these films.”

That being said, the situation remains dire. “Beyond the Hills” is a stunning, universal work and it is only one of many Romanian films that might not have been made under the current circumstances. Given the films themselves, and the extent to which their artistic audacity has been recognized by the international community, this seems ridiculous. Yet the new official attitude seems to want break apart or censor the image of Romania and its people. Mungiu’s work is made with a diametrically opposed philosophy. “In reality all things are important,” he says. “You have to experience each moment of reality. You can’t cut out what you don’t like.” And in the end, this is the argument that needs to be made to the current administration in Romania, from as many corners as possible.

"Beyond the Hills" arrives in theaters this Friday, via Sundance Selects.

Many thanks to Mona Nicoara, a universal documentary filmmaker in her own right whose insight helped shape this piece.