Cristian Mungiu on the set. (Sundance Selects )
In 2005, Romania's equivalent of the sensational O.J. Simpson trial rocked Eastern Europe when a priest and four nuns from a convent in the country's remote Moldavia region went to prison for accidentally killing a young woman during an exorcism. The case captivated the public, attracted interest from filmmaker Roman Polanski and ultimately inspired writer-director Cristian Mungiu to make "Beyond the Hills."
The 21/2-hour movie, which opens March 8, presents a slow-burn narrative that skips flashy special effects in favor of long takes and low-key performances.
"There's a great difference between the kind of cinema I do and something like 'The Exorcist,' which I saw as a teenager," Mungiu said. "[William] Friedkin's movie is made to affect the spectators. It does not follow [events that are] true to life. I try to be very close to life. I'm trying to make a film in which everything that you see could have really happened."
So no projectile green vomit or heads spinning 360 degrees in the story of a young woman thought to be possessed who was gagged, bound to a cross and left alone in a room for three days with no food.
That resolve to keep the story to the facts also appealed to audiences. When "Beyond the Hills" debuted at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Mungiu earned the screenplay award while Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, in their feature film debuts, shared best actress honors for portraying, respectively, novice nun Voichita and her disruptive friend Alina.
To further establish an authentically austere atmosphere for "Beyond the Hills," Mungiu and his team visited Orthodox Church monasteries, then built their own version on a hill in the middle of rural Moldavia. During the shoot last winter, temperatures plunged so low that steam came from characters' mouths even during interior scenes. The set, like the religious community it was modeled on, had no electricity or running water.
"Winter time in Romania, it gets very cold," said Mungiu, making no apology for the full-immersion 13-hour days he demanded from cast and crew. In fact, much like some actors who prefer to stay in character even when they are not shooting — think Daniel Day-Lewis — Mungiu thought that approach would work well for his cast.
For the first few weeks of the shoot, Valeriu Andriut¿a¿, costarring as the Orthodox priest in charge of the exorcism, traveled home to Bucharest in between his scenes. "Every time he went away," Mungiu said by phone from Bucharest, "Valeriu was stepping out of his character and we were losing a lot of time to get him back. We decided it was better for the film that the main actors stay there the whole time. It was important to protect the actors from what happens in the real world so that after a while their real world becomes the world of the film."
If Mungiu ran an uncompromising production, it's not because he wanted to imprint his own personality on the finished product. On the contrary, he and cinematographer Oleg Mutu banished stylistic flourishes in favor of a neutral point of view. "I have the option to move the camera if I need to follow a character naturally," Mungiu said. "If not, the camera stays still, because that makes me less visible as a filmmaker. That's one of the things I'm interested in."
Drawing from novelist Tatiana Niculescu Bran's fictionalized account of the real-life tragedy, "Beyond the Hills" raises questions about religion, superstition, poverty, institutional authority and insanity. Mungiu leaves it to the audience to arrive at answers. "We're not trying to establish who is guilty, who is not guilty," he said. "We're trying to deliver the truth about what we imagine could have happened in a complex case that speaks about good and evil, and love and what people are asked to do in the name of love. What is free will in the absence of education? What happens when you live in a very poor society that doesn't invest in education? It's all mixed together."
"Beyond the Hills" is not Mungiu's first movie to examine universal themes within a distinctly Romanian context. In 2007, his "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" chronicled a grim day in the life of a young woman seeking an abortion during the declining days of communism. And while "4 Months" won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or, it unexpectedly failed to make the Academy Awards' foreign-language film shortlist.
The snub triggered a rule change in the category. Now, an executive committee can add films to the Oscar shortlist that might otherwise be overlooked by general voters. "The good thing for me about the regulation change is that a film like 'Beyond the Hills,' that's a little different from regular movies, will be watched by more people. At least that's what I hope," Mungiu said.
But bypassed once again for Oscar validation this year, Mungiu conceded that his stripped-down storytelling aesthetic may not be everyone's cup of tea. "We don't make these films to be popular. We make them to be honest. That's the risk we take."
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