Would you believe?
Palme d’Or-winning director Cristian Mungiu discusses his latest film, Beyond the Hills, a notorious true story of religion and mental disorder from Ceausescu's Romania
In 2007, Cristian Mungiu ’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days , a study of abortion in Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania, beat off competition from the likes of Bela Tarr, the Coen brothers and David Fincher to take the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Suddenly, the young film-maker – a former journalist from Iasi – found himself under the nicest kind of pressure. Would he become one of the age’s great film-makers or was he destined to remain an answer in movie trivia quizzes?
“Yes, you do feel a bit of pressure,” he says in his fluent, staccato English. “And, remember, I didn’t get it for my eighth film. I got it for my second. It was very easy for people to say: ‘Great film, but let’s see what comes next.’ And it wasn’t just Cannes. That film ended up top of so many film critics’ lists. You ask yourself: ‘how did I do this?’”
Mungiu reacted by treading some water. He gathered various Romanian colleagues together and made a darkly hilarious portmanteau film on the Ceausescu years entitled (with thick irony) Tales from the Golden Age . Last year, he eventually returned to Cannes with the stunning, exhausting Beyond the Hills .
The film derives from – and significantly diverges from – a notorious news story concerning the death of a woman following an exorcism in rural Moldavia. There is plenty to chew on here. In Mungiu’s version, the Orthodox priest, unquestioned deity of a spartan monastery, recognises that the girl is mentally ill, but still feels the need to root around in her psyche for ancient demons.
“The film is a general tale. It does not just belong to the people in the film,” he says. “It is about the guilt that attaches to people around this girl long before she ever ends up in this situation. She is betrayed by the people in the orphanage where she grew up. The people belonging to the rational world don’t care for her. I blame those people who think that doing nothing is an option. If you don’t do anything you already have an attitude.”
This is interesting. The priest in the film is portrayed as (to use a term popular in the Orthodox church) a dogmatic, unyielding patriarch. But, at the same time, he is one of the few people who genuinely tries to solve the girl’s problems.
“He at least cares,” Mungiu says. “Looking at responses to the story on the internet, I discovered the debate was in very broad terms. It was very polemical. So, I tried to make a film that said: listen to the other side before saying who is guilty. Those who hate religion said: they murdered a girl. The religious said: nobody else did anything. Of course, each of them has a point.”
The story did leak out to the international media. But the details remained murky. Within Romania, it was a sensation.
“Yes. Roman Polanski came and wanted to make a film about it. Pretty much all the Romanian directors wanted to make a film. But a lot was made up. The press made it into The Exorcist .”