For anyone familiar with Cristian Mungiu’s film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, the Romanian director’s current feature, Beyond the Hills, will echo like a déjà vu. Again we find two female best friends, struggling to help each other navigate a brutal and oppressive society. Again, we’re presented with a powerful male figure whose presence casts a somber and twisted shadow over their lives. Again, we see the long, stark shots of a dream-like Romania lost in time, straddling the fence between past and present, East and West.
But if 2007’s 4 Months was a fictional account of a woman seeking an abortion in Ceausescu’s long gone communist Romania, the story that Beyond the Hills depicts is all too real and immediate. The film—which garnered Cannes Best Actress awards for its two leads, Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, and a Best Screenplay award for Mungiu—revolves around the real-life episode of a 2005 exorcism attempt that resulted in the death of a 23-year-old nun and the arrest of a priest and four others. Without resorting to blood or gore, Beyond the Hills is a horror story more terrifying than anything John Carpenter, Wes Craven or George Romero could have crafted; it’s the horror of desperation, religious blindness, and ultimately, well-intentioned souls committing atrocities. It’s the sort of film that will have you perched at the edge of your seat for its duration, dreading the inevitable, and leave you with a 10-pound knot where your stomach once was. We spoke with Cristian Mungiu about his film, religion, and why unambiguous films are inherently dishonest.
Beyond the Hills is based on a true-life exorcism. How’d you first hear about this incident? As soon as the incident happened, in June 2005, all the press rushed to write about it. It became the subject of the day. All the Romanian newspapers and television [shows] started covering and debating it—some of them, on the basis of what they heard from the others—and soon the European press also became aware. In their rush to write about the incident, very few people really tried to document what really happened. Tatiana Niculescu Bran was one of the journalists that recreated the order of events for the BBC. Later, she wrote a couple of fact-based books about the incident.
What about the story caught your eye? I was attracted by the complexity of the incident, by the multiple layers it brought into focus: for me it spoke about education, religion, poverty, superstition, ignorance, the relativity of good and evil, the malfunction of social institutions, free will and indifference in the modern society.
There are some strong structural similarities between this film and 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. Is there something that attracts you to the triangle of two leading women against a strong male presence? This is one way of reading the films. Actually, when I decided to write Beyond the Hills, I noticed that there were going to be a couple of women as main characters. I wasn’t really happy about [that] as I wanted to do something as different from 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days as possible. But there were a lot of substantial differences [between the two films] regarding essential structural components: Beyond the Hills is happening nowadays and not during communist times; the amount of filmic time was expanded from the classical 24 hours to several days; and the quantity of narrated facts and side stories was much greater. In the end, these differences mattered to me much more than the easily noticeable resemblance of the triangle “two women, one man.” My films are always story-driven and not character-driven—and reflect my understanding of cinema at that specific moment.
The Romania of Beyond the Hills is such a fascinating place, where the past and present seem to coexist. Is the story of Beyond the Hills uniquely Romanian? What people do or are asked to do in the name of faith is a universal story—whatever the name of that religion is. Believing without self-introspection is universal. Not seeing the difference between religion and superstitions is also universal. This lack of empathy for the one next to you—a consequence of a certain [form of] selfishness—is common to modern society and not to a given territory.
There is a harsh brutality to your films which makes them feel much more violent than any traditional "horror" films. Is this effect important to you as a director? Everything comes from my way of understanding cinema and the necessity in filmmaking to be true to life and as close as possible to reality. I am not specifically looking for violence in my films—but if there is some naturally belonging to the story, I won’t avoid showing it. The difference is that you know that horror films are just ‘films’—nothing [in them] is true, they’re just entertainment. My kind of cinema gives the feeling of reality—of things that maybe could be.
My way of conceiving cinema also makes me avoid cutting within scenes. As long as cinema is a reflection of life, you have to preserve in films (as in life) all the moments of a story. In life you can’t edit what happens to you and preserve only what you consider to be relevant—you have to live every second of your life—including the violent, irrelevant, or inglorious moments. And if you analyze [my] films in detail, you’ll notice that I avoided shooting the rape moment, the abortion [in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days] or the physical torture scene [Beyond the Hills] directly. I want to avoid getting this kind of impressionistic effect but I can’t skip the moments completely because they are part of an important process that finally allows you, as spectator, to experience some of the mental state of the protagonists.
How did you prepare your actors for the exorcism scene of Beyond the Hills? I always start from practical things: I show them what to do, how to do it, and I speak about the rhythm and intensity of the scene. I act [it out] but I avoid being conceptual.
Did you do research on exorcisms? I based that scene on the description of the true events that exists in books, on footage you can easily find on the Internet, and on my own experience of witnessing somewhat similar rituals when I was younger. But in actuality there is not much happening in a ritual like this. It is mostly what we invest in it: emotionally or from a religious point of view.
Are you religious? What does being religious mean? I don’t believe God created the world in seven days but I do believe there is a sense to what happens. I am aware of the social role the Church had in civilizing people and in teaching them the difference between good and evil. But religion today should focus more [on the] moral and humanistic aspects of belief, on a practical model of behaving in society and applying the profound Christian beliefs in everyday life rather than rituals and habits. It is more important to meditate on the one bad thing you did and feel remorse about it than to come up with a complete list of possible sins.
Although by the end of Beyond the Hills we are horrified at the results of the exorcism, throughout most of the film we see the priest and the nuns in an ambiguous light—they seem genuinely well-intentioned. Does this reflect your sense of ambiguity about the incident? No, I am determined to tell the truth. My feeling—after researching the real case—is that they were well intentioned, even if they did what they did. Again, this is just the ambiguity of life itself: in life we do not have good characters and bad characters. This is a horrible simplification of a certain kind of cinema. When you say "ambiguous," you actually feel that: 1. You don’t know what to feel about the characters and, 2. You can’t read my position as an author about them—which is correct, that’s what I intended.
Most people experience this lack of certitude as discomfort, they’re used to watching films that tell them what to believe. For me, that is a very dishonest and manipulative way of story-telling. I challenge you to have an opinion, whatever that is, given your education and level of conformism. This is more difficult as it requires and effort of analysis. At the same time, it is more respectful to the spectator and more ethical at the end. I am not trying to impose my point of view, I am trying to bring forward stories that will encourage people to think about important issues they never bother to really think about. That should be one of the purposes of cinema.