Only a select handful of directors know the honour of having had their film booed at Cannes. I tax Cristian Mungiu with the memory of that hullabaloo last May when his Beyond the Hills, which later won two major prizes and a sheaf of rave reviews, raised the hackles of early festivalgoers. The 44-year-old Romanian director’s first feature since his 2007 Golden Palm winner, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, is – like that film – a harrowing, climactically shocking story based on true events: here a girl’s death in a monastery after attempts to “save her soul” with punishment and exorcism.
It’s often a good sign, isn’t it, when audiences boo? It means the film has got to them?
“That is the point of making a story on a controversial topic,” Mungiu agrees, sitting in a southern European café. Forthrightly spoken he is pristine-looking, even faintly priestly, in his white buttoned-up shirt. “You can’t expect unanimity about a film on a subject that has polarised people. I want the film to generate questions and debate.”
This it has, along with the acclaim. Of its Cannes prizes – Best Screenplay and Best Actress – the second was shared between newcomers Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, playing the former orphanage friends reunited when Alina (Flutur) returns from a stay abroad to visit Voichita (Stratan), now a novice nun. Alina seeks friendship or more – a shared bed for the beginning – in the Romanian monastery where her intrusive emotionalism starts to incur the adverse attention of the senior priest and Mother Superior.
The film ends in tragedy; so did the real story. “The case is very well known in Romania; if you look on the internet it’s still very popular. In 2011 the priest was finally released from prison, and also the Mother Superior.”
“It’s clear they have done wrong,” Mungiu asserts when I remark that his film seems to hold off condemning them. “But what I try to bring out is, they did wrong after nobody else did anything. Their first reaction was good, they took the girl to the hospital” – when the violence of Alina’s distress expresses itself in physical assault – “and had no initial intention to take her back. But if you let the church be the only organisation that will take any initiative, what do you expect to happen?”
Initiative, in this and similar cases, regarding the lost and orphaned: that notorious demographic in Romania, first under Ceausescu, more recently in a country where emigration has denuded families. “You’ll always have problems in a poor country. Today many people leave to live abroad, leaving children behind who don’t get a good schooling, who grow up without having the set of values they need. And then you wonder why so many bad things happen.
“Beyond the Hills is not a criticism of religion but of a failure to understand that religion should not be taken literally. The church is very popular in Romania. But if you focus on the surface, on ritual and tradition, you encourage the irrational part of Christianity. Religion doesn’t mean you go to church and light a candle. It means – it should mean – that you absorb a set of values which you can use in your everyday life.”
Tell that, though, to parts of the “religious” world today; tell that to the dark forces of mysticism powering up their jihads. Beyond the Hills goes beyond the hills of Romania because the truth of a director’s local, parochial story has a modern reverberance. That may be, too, why this country’s cinema has had so potent a recent heyday, starting with Mungiu’s 2007 Palm winner: an abortion drama that rang globally recognisable alarm bells about everything from flawed national welfare systems to skilled scam artists exploiting the vulnerable.
It has been an extraordinary renaissance, or naissance, Mungiu concurs. “After 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, we have had an important film at Cannes every year,” he says, citing directors such as Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr Lazarescu, Aurora) and Corneliu Porumboiu (Police, Adjective). It is the documentary approach, I put to him, that has made New Romanian Cinema so distinctive: the quest for an exactitude of truth – a magnifying-glass realism – which can be scary, tragic or satirical. Stylistically, in Beyond the Hills, Mungiu’s documentary instincts manifest themselves in long camera takes, a method that, in fictional drama, can result in a near-Kubrickian shooting ratio.
“I shot a lot of footage because it’s not easy having eight people interacting in a scene without cutting. I have one take per scene: always something can go wrong and you start again. But I wanted long takes because it’s my idea of cinema. In life, important things don’t happen one on top of the other. There are dead moments, which can also be important. I try to preserve this in film. I don’t want a process whereby I select what’s important and tell you; I want to stage a situation without including myself as director.”
That’s why during the powerful moments in Beyond the Hills we don’t know quite how to react. The priests: are they guilty? Are they malevolent or merely stupid? The girls: is Alina designing or victimised, possessive or “possessed”?
“In the original real story there was no strong friendship between the two girls,” says Mungiu. “One girl from the orphanage came to visit but the other never tried to help. Is there more than friendship, in my film, between them? It’s for the viewer to decide. For me it’s not important; their affection for each other is important. When you have only one person you love or feel loved by, the sense of abandonment when you lose that love gives you the energy, the terrible energy, to do what this girl does.
“In the same way, it’s for the audience to decide if the priests act from malice or ignorance. What I want to ask is, ‘How much can a person, or an organisation, ask in the name of love?’ I don’t think it’s fair, in the name of God, to ask someone like this innocent girl to give up her love for anybody around her, for another human being. Very cruel things are done in the name of love. That includes the love of God.”
‘Beyond the Hills’ is on limited release in the US and opens on March 15 in the UK