On the surface, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills can easily be regarded as a masterful meditation on life, love and God and how the three don't necessarily fit easily together. Names like Bergman, Ozu and even Buñuel come to mind when sitting through the movie's spellbinding 150 minutes. But there's another layer to the movie, one that belies any typical art house sensibility. As it turns out, a seemingly unwitting layer that puts the unsuspecting viewer in the clutches of something closer to a horror film. Not the fantasy type of horror concerning monsters and phantasms, but rather, the type of horror one might be able to create for one's self in one's daily life.
As with his previous international success and Palme D'Or winner, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the plot of Beyond the Hills revolves around two young women. One's given up her old ways, has found God and now lives in a convent; the other's come back to reclaim the love she once had. As each struggles to characterize their relationship, together they make choices that bring about horrifying consequences. And as with that previous film, it's an infusion of horror into everyday life -- a tactic that, to this reviewer, seemed to be consciously done by the director to further heighten dramatic tension in his films. Turns out, such is not the case. This is the point in a conversation where an artist's intention and critical interpretation can sometimes be as compatible as religion and doubt. It's also at this point where it would perhaps be prudent to quit while ahead and not overanalyze intent just because a work of art's creator happens to be sitting a few feet away from you.
On occasion, one gets to interview a filmmaker in a roundtable setting. Not a press junket, but a more intimate setting with a handful of other interviewers from other outlets. Such was this interview.
Fellow interviewer: So great job on the film. Really riveting. Totally engrossing. What I found so intriguing is that this kinda plays out like a horror movie, where the audience is yelling, "Don't go in there!" you know. Was that your intent? Do you want audiences to have that kind of reaction?
Mungiu: Actually, I think this belongs rather to the trailer than to the film. It's part of the story, if you want, and it's part of my way of working. I think that if you abstain from having yourself in the film, from making comments, and if you let people just witness the story something like this might happen. I was aware that this would happen but it's part of my understanding that every film, even if you talk about a difficult subject, is finally for the audience. So it's important that the audience participates, that they feel for the characters, they care for them. I wanted to have a certain rhythm in the film. It's a long film, I know, because there are so many things happening. But finding incidents and episodes in which people will feel very close to what happened really helped the film.
Marvin Miranda: To pick up on what she was saying: I don’t know if you’re aware that you have this knack for conveying or depicting everyday events as a horror story. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Michael Haneke. White Balloon came to mind, as an example. Is that something that you’re drawn to? Because with this movie and your previous one, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, same thing. Every turn seems like it’s going to lead you to a dark hallway.
Mungiu: Actually, I’ve made more films than these two.
Marvin Miranda: We know. As far as American audiences are concerned, though—
Cristian Mungiu: It’s not relevant to make a comparison between two films of an author that made several films. It’s not relevant. It’s true that I’m always driven to things which don’t always work in society, to subjects which are very layered, that speak about the effects of something not working in society, on individual choices. I wanted to speak about personal freedom in 4 Months, a society that was so harsh on people. And here I really wanted to speak about a relationship that people have to Church in nowadays society, what is the position of the Church and of religion in society? It’s part of the story which travels the way you say because all the films that I do are very much shaped by the story. It’s true that my inspiration is always life and reality and I try to stay as close to reality as possible. I never watch films on the same topic, for example, before I start working.
Fellow Interviewer: As this was a true story, did you have the actors meet with the people they were playing?
Cristian Mungiu: It's inspired by these non-fictional novels, but nevertheless, it doesn't mean that it's a true story. Reality doesn't repeat itself. Who knows where the true story was? I don't think that films made about true stories are closer to reality than purely fictional films. I thought for a long while because I have a friend that knew this priest [who is a main character in the movie] very well. I thought if I am to meet him or not. But finally, I decided it's not good. Not for him and not for me because I never wanted to make a documentary--this is not a re-enactment of what happened. It's a way of having a benefit from this tragedy and speaking of some things that don't work in society. So I thought it's just polite to let him live his life and experience the sense of guilt that he experiences for what happened. And I decided to respect his point of view in the film. This is why the screenplay is so long. I wanted to have all the details in place so that you understand the circumstances in which they acted and to respect each other character's point of view in the film. But I decided not to meet them and to change the real names of the characters and to just let them be.
Marvin Miranda: Speaking of point of view: You seem to have a very strong female point of view in this movie and your previous movie. Men are almost secondary characters, really, in your movies. What fascinates you about telling the narrative from a woman's point of view?
Cristian Mungiu: I don't make this gender difference when I work. I never start from the character. There are people that start a screenplay from the character. I start from the situation. I'm looking for situations which are strong, complex, intense, that speak about a lot of general human values which you can relate to when you watch the film, if you watch it here or in Venezuela or in Africa, wherever. But what I think, because I notice that in these two films there are women which are the main characters, I think that women might be more often victims of the social violence because they are more fragile. But it's rather something coming from the situation, from the stories themselves than my personal decision to make films about women. I think that if you understand human nature, the films will be about people and not about women or men. And as I was saying, yet again: between these two films I made some other films having male characters. The characters that you watch in this film, for example, they play a very important part and I'm always trying to have very complex characters. I don't make films with good guys and bad guys and black-and-white situations. Everything is always very complex.
Marvin Miranda: You might hate my following question, but—
Cristian Mungiu: Ask it anyway…
Marvin Miranda: It has to do with themes. And certainly themes are carried over from your previous film, 4 Months. And in this film you talked about freedom, from a micro point of view, whereas in 4 Months it’s about oppression from a macro point of view. Is that something that speaks profoundly to you from your personal experience? Are you interested in talking about these sort of themes of oppression vs. freedom, what it is to be personally free in an oppressive society?
Cristian Mungiu: This film doesn't speak to me too much about oppression, for example. Every film, if you think about films, at the end can be interpreted as a film speaking about choices and about freedom in a certain way, but I never interpret what the film is about when I start writing. When I write and when I work with the actors, we only focus on each scene of the film to make it close to reality as possible; believable, very natural, but I avoid interpreting what I do in words. I notice, for example, this film speaks about a lot of things that interest me. Like how reality, good and evil can be today. It speaks about different ways of understanding love and what people do and are asked to do in the name of love. It speaks as well about choices, of the importance of free will, about making choices and decisions with your own head and it speaks about consequences. Once you understand that responsibility is personal and the sense of guilt is personal then you will understand it's important to make decisions with your own mind. So the film is very layered and the [subjects] that the film can talk about are really quite a lot because specifically I don't choose one from the beginning and direct the film into that specific direction.
Fellow Interviewer: Why did you choose to shoot almost everything in master shot and not cut-away?
Actually, everything is master shot in this film and in my previous film [4 Months]. It’s a decision coming to the way I understand cinema. My films are not only about the story. It’s my point of view about cinema and a way of interpreting life. And part of it comes from this idea that life should be primarily the inspiration for cinema. In life, if you think about things, time flows like this: in a continuum. You can’t cut the moments that you don’t like. You have to live them all. So this is why I decided that if I want to make films, which are so much inspired by reality, I have to preserve this into filmmaking and I won’t be cutting because this is a way of saying that you are present there as a director. All the effort that I make is that I allow the situation to grow in front of the audience without watching me behind [the camera]. And this is why I avoid editing. This is why I avoid music. Music doesn’t exist in life. It won’t start now to wave to us that it’s the moment to be emotional. I think it’s so much more difficult but honest for your audience to create emotions and atmosphere only with actors. I think that we need to respect the audience and to understand the means of the art that we use...
Beyond the Hills will open in L.A. on Friday, March 8, at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in West Los Angeles. On March 15 the run will expand to include Laemmle’s Playhouse in Pasadena, Laemmle’s Town Center in Encino and Regency’s South Coast Village in Orange County.