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 .”
Nobody could easily confuse Beyond the Hills with that famous William Friedkin film from 1973. Clocking in at a daunting 155 minutes, it progresses through lengthy takes that dwell on whispered conversations and intense, furtive gazes. Like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days , the picture is fuelled by anger, but still plays like the work of a reasonable man. One wonders if the Orthodox Church in Romania saw it that way. “We had a couple of screenings and the person from the Orthodox Church reacted very badly, very violently. He said it was shameful. It offered an awful image of the Church, apparently. Things didn’t happen like that.”
Mungiu goes on to discuss the Church’s continuing influence on Romanian life. His digressions confirm how very differently Christianity fared in the various countries of the old Soviet bloc. The Czech Republic is now one of the most proudly godless places on planet Earth. In Poland, the Catholic Church remained unstoppably strong through the Communist years. Mungiu explains that, even in Ceausescu’s time, the priests were paid by the state. Two new churches are built every week.
“Look, there are 20,000 churches in a country of 20 million,” he says. “There are only 5,000 schools and 500 hospitals. At some point, you have to ask questions. Between 80 and 90 per cent of people will say they are religious. But they don’t often make the distinction between religious faith – which is personal – and religion and superstition.”
The film gets at that confusion very effectively. The atmosphere is one of piety and ancient dread. One imagines that the local tourism authorities might have some reservations about the depiction of the nation’s rural communities. Indeed, certain unhelpful stereotypes about Romanian society could be reinforced.
“Well, a few years ago some folk in a small village felt that one, a peasant who had recently died, had become a spirit and was haunting them,” he says. “And this is a village with ordinary people who watch television and so on. They dug him up and put a stake in his heart. This is not 500 years ago. Hopefully, the film will not be seen in that way.”
Let us just note that, much less than 500 years ago, Irish citizens decided their statues were weeping and quietly gyrating. We all have our spiritual eccentricities. One wonders, nonetheless, what the Romanian authorities have made of Mungiu’s success. One of a powerful generation of local film-makers that also includes Corneliu Porumboiu and Cristi Puiu, Cristian has brought a shower of awards to Romania. Beyond the Hills took home both the best actress prize and the best screenplay gong at Cannes. The films do not, however, paint an entirely flattering portrait of that nation’s society.
“It’s a very superficial thing,” he muses. “They are seduced by awards. But most of that admiration is coming from people who never watch the films. They like that there is something out there about Romania. When that recognition ends I worry a little about how we will be seen back home.”