In his searing abortion drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Christian Mungiu didn't hold back, finishing the film with the image of an aborted foetus. Now in Beyond the Hills, the 45-year-old Romanian filmmaker gives audiences a bird's eye glimpse into an exorcism of the type that actually happened amongst a fanatical branch of the Romanian Orthodox Church in 2005.
Incredibly, Mungiu presents neither of these events in a sensational manner, but through his astute spare lens, following his technique of filming in long takes like, well, a religion.
In 2007, Mungiu won the Cannes Film Festival's Palme d'Or for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and admits the hallowed prize helped him make Beyond the Hills. Again last year in Cannes, he picked up the best screenplay award for the latter film, with young first-timers Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Fluturher sharing the best actress prize.
Set in a remote corner of the Moldavian mountains, Beyond the Hills follows childhood best friends Voichita (Stratan) and Alina (Fluturher), who grew up together in an orphanage. As they approach adulthood their lives have taken different turns, with Alina now working in Germany and VoichiÈ›a becoming a nun in a monastery run by a charismatic though strict Orthodox priest (Valeriu AndriuÅ£Äƒ), who comes across like a kind of cult leader. When lonely Alina wants VoichiÈ›a to visit her in Germany, the priest refuses to let her go. Alina becomes deranged and after an unsuccessful trip to the hospital, the priest decides she requires an exorcism. The story is based on an actual 2005 case, which Tatiana Niculescu Bran famously documented in two non-fiction novels. Mungiu had been collecting clips since 2005 and was inspired by the novels.
“It was basically the local press who turned the story into an inflammatory, specular event,” Mungiu explains. “They used the term 'exorcism' even before they knew what had happened. It took a long time for anyone to understand precisely what happened.”
Several Romanian directors were circling the project including 79-year-old Lucian Pintilie. Yet after three years nothing had happened. “I discovered on the internet that it was still a very hot topic that polarised people,” Mungiu recalls, “so I decided it was time to do it. I found a way of tackling the subject in a way that interested me.”
As with 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, where the protagonist's friend had sex with the doctor in order to procure an abortion, Mungiu liked the idea of again focusing on women, whom he perceives are often victimised in this poor, patriarchal society. While the former film was set in the final days of Communism—in 1966 Nicolae Ceausescu banned abortions to increase the population while in other Communist countries they were legal—Beyond the Hills examines the dominance of religion post-Communism in a country with a low education standard, which basically means the orphans here had few options. Essentially, both films are about personal freedom.
“One of the first freedoms in Romania in the early '90s after the fall of communism was to make abortions legal,” Mungiu explains. “People considered this the ultimate freedom and in the first two years we had nearly one million abortions in a country of only 20 million people. We needed 10 years for this abortion wave to drop.”
His new film deals in part with how after the end of Communism, the Church has become incredibly powerful. Even during the Communist times religion was tolerated in Romania and priests were paid by the State.
“I think we now have 20,000 churches in a country of 20,000,000 people, with 4,000 built in the post-Communist period,” Mungiu says. “In Romania, 85 percent of the people declare themselves to be religious in polls. However, if you were to ask them to define their religion, I think there would be a lot of superstition mixed together with Christian morals.”
He notes that the new individualism that came with democracy prevents people from caring about each other. Public services don't operate in the way they should either. “The orphanage, the doctors and hospitals didn't react in favour of these girls and are as guilty as any of the characters in the film. It's all debatable.”
The lesbian angle had been highly touted in the press though it's just as likely that the pair had been close friends, cuddling each other in the same orphanage bed, as they were literally alone in the world.
“While I consider the characters I've created to be mostly fictional, when I realised the girls were basically trying to protect each other I thought I could make a good film,” says Mungiu.
Shooting in the freezing winter and at times lighting without electricity, presented its challenges. Certainly the beauty of Mungiu's white canvas and filming by candlelight make this a truly original production. It gives the feeling that we literally are back in the Dark Ages, and when he suddenly reverts to a brightly lit modern shop in a township, the effect is glaring.
Still, Mungiu's principle filmmaking concern is his single-take-per-scene strategy, which he also employed on 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The long takes heighten the sense of realism, he says.
“The screenplay that I wrote for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days lasted 24 hours, whereas this one lasts a couple of weeks. I wanted to check if these long takes could work for long periods of time. I used them because I want to make myself as invisible as possible, because whenever you cut a scene you make your presence felt. For me, at this moment of my development as a filmmaker, this honesty is very important.
“Of course, it's a very difficult way to work and you have to be cautious to set the right rhythm. The choreography has to be very precise. We have to rehearse a lot and then if anything goes wrong we must start over again.”
Beyond the Hill is released in cinemas August 8.