“It’s important to keep on searching, to arrive on set with the idea that you don’t know what the best way of doing things will be. If you are going in the right direction, the film speaks to you. It’s more honest this way. Cinema is really a question of honesty.“
“It is not the subject that matters, it isn’t the story, it is the way it is done. It’s a new way of making films, a simpler way. Directly relating the experiences we have instead of just picking the kind of story that people expect. There are many stereotypes going around in film today. I don’t feel I have to feed them.“
Born: 27 April 1968, Iași, Romania.
Directing career: 2002 –
Movement: Romanian New Wave.
Traits: Like his Romanian New Wave peers, Mungiu is interested in exploring the post-Communism legacy of institutions and social systems, typically focusing on characters finding themselves stuck within ethical or moral dilemmas out of which he carves out low-key suspenseful dramas. One of the great strengths of this method is Mungiu’s innate humanism, unwilling to judge or demonise characters of differing stances but instead examines their varying perspectives. This three-dimensional approach to character and storytelling is well coupled with his trademark style of long-take realism, immersing us in the focus of the scene, and engaging our attention with a taut use of offscreen space.
Collaborators: Oleg Mutu (cinematographer), Vlad Ivanov (actor), Luminița Gheorghiu (actress), Mircea Olteanu (editor).
Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri, 2012)
Beyond the Hills is Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s much-anticipated follow-up to his Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Whereas that title referred to a timespan, this film’s refers to a place, namely an Orthodox monastery atop hills in the Romanian region of Moldavia.
There we meet two young women, Alina and Voichita, who once shared a room in a nearby orphanage. It becomes apparent that theirs is a very close bond or at least it once was, and a romantic alliance is even hinted at, but much has changed since their years together at the orphanage.
Voichita is now a devout nun, obeying the patriarchal command of a head-priest everyone calls ‘Papa’. Alina on the other hand is visiting from Germany, where she has found jobs for her and her friend, and fully expects Voichita to honour a promise they once made – to never be apart again. But tension arises when the nun decides to put her love of God first and remain at the monastery. The defiant Alina is both confused and deeply troubled by Voichita’s change of heart and will become a disruptive force within the monastery’s ascetic community as the story takes a series of surprising and increasingly frightening turns.
Gradually and through small details, a backstory emerges evoking a past of bullying, exploitation and desperation, which only reinforces the idea of the strong connection between Voichita and Alina. One scene where the monastery’s mother superior is begged by a young woman from the orphanage, to find a position for her within the convent, speaks loudly about the fragility of the would-be nuns who seek refuge there. Moldavia is one of the poorest regions in the EU today, and the title itself suggests a place forgotten by the rest of civilisation.
Within the monastery, Papa observes antiquated dogmas and traditions, which the nuns adhere to, either nodding to everything he says or parroting it later themselves. Neither are the institutions surrounding the hills shown in a better light. The police are blasé and effectively powerless, the hospital overworked and full – when Alina is taken there after the first signs of psychological distress, the staff send her back suggesting the best remedy would be to “pray for her”.
As in 4 Months, Mungiu’s new film is disapproving of institutions and bureaucracies, and focuses intently on a female friendship that is severely tested by outside circumstances, but in many ways it is a different kind of film. The director has this time added ambitious themes of spirituality, of good and evil, of earthly love versus divine love, of the clash between religion and the secular modern world. And unlike the odious black-market abortionist in 4 Months, there is no overwhelmingly bad-intentioned character on display here. Never does the film caricature the more spiritual characters; Voichita seems genuinely content in her new piousness.
However easier it may be to empathise with Alina’s elemental need for the love of her companion, and her more down-to-earth attitude, she is not depicted as merely a victim, nor is the monastery’s way of life purely shown as negative. In the end even Papa, for all his stubbornness, still emerges as someone trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. Beyond the Hills therefore refuses to be facile and make easy judgments; its plot is loosely based on a real-life event which shocked Romania a few years back and Mungiu clearly wishes to explore and open debate rather than sensationalise. In this, the film is a success as its neutrality allows the audience to make their own minds up.
The psychological realism, handheld one-shot takes, bleak beauty of the visuals (Oleg Mutu the regular cinematographer of the Romanian New Wave is proving himself to be one of the great contemporary DPs), and deft performances of subtle restraint from the two leads (who shared the Best Actress award at Cannes 2012), all add to the intense immersing mood of the film. The doomed passion between the two central characters leaves a powerful sadness that sneaks up on you by the end, and stays with you for days. (July 2013)
Graduation (Bacalaureat, 2016)
Originally posted in My Best Films of 2016.
If hospitals and ambulances abound in Romanian New Wave films, it is that their state-of-the-nation diagnosis is clear: entrenched corruption at the heart of Romania’s institutions is the deep-rooted malady that has stifled post-Ceausescu hopes into powerless anger. As in Sieranevada, the protagonist of Graduation is a doctor, Romeo Alda, whose ethical dilemma is the focus of the film. On the day before his daughter Eliza’s final high school exam, the result of which decides whether she can go study at Cambridge, she is sexually assaulted in the street. The trauma of this event leaves Eliza far too shaken to focus on the exam, and anyway her leaving Romania for the UK seems to be more her father’s obsession than her own… Hence Dr Romeo is left with a stark choice: should he make use of the network of mutual back-scratching connections to ‘alter’ Eliza’s grade so that this traumatic incident does not change her trajectory, or should he ensure that the very same moral principles he finds lacking in Romania are at least preserved in his family unit, even if it ironically means his daughter must stay in the country he so wants her to escape from?
Cristian Mungiu had already shown with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days his skill in creating suspense out of unexpected subject matter, and his follow-up to 2012’s Beyond the Hills is more of the excellent same, building on the Romanian New Wave credo (as ever Vlad Ivanov appears, this time as a police inspector Romeo went to school with) while adding a touch of Haneke’s Caché and Martel’s The Headless Woman. Like those films, this is among other things a portrait of guilt, responsibility and hypocrisy. The film’s perspective remains very close to Romeo’s throughout, so we have to pay extra attention to spot the things that he is wilfully blind to. Watch for the number of times Mungiu meticulously trains our eye to focus on the centre of the frame, only for potentially crucial information to appear on the edges: be it the clues to who might have been a witness to the assault on Eliza or the mysterious attacker throwing stones at Romeo’s windows and windshield throughout the film. (April 2020)