Cristian Mungiu (Director)

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).

Films reviewed:

Beyond the Hills

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)

10 thoughts on “Cristian Mungiu (Director)

  1. I can relate to life in the corruption-infested society since I live in one, on the periphery of the EU, but for me, the situation is perhaps darker here than in Romania since culture is on its knees, there is practically no film industry worthy enough to mention. So, what my nation lacks in the ethical domain, it also lacks in the cultural, there are no serious filmmakers/writers who can point to these maladies with a sharp and honest critical eye. Myself, I have long abandoned such tendencies and have secluded in an aesthetic, unpolitical domain (critical essays, poetry) I have seen no Romanian New Wave films yet, but I will, I might find some things to relate with, and a distinctly humanist approach to these problems is what both me and my nation need. Thank you for your reviews, they sesm to be a great introduction in Mungiu’s “cinematic universe”, to throw a joke or two.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. Having discussed these films with other people from the Balkans, I think for sure you will be able to relate, these are issues that go beyond Romania to all the post-communist Eastern bloc, and are sadly even more universal than only Europe. I was thinking the other day actually that I don’t know of much contemporary Croatian cinema or any cinema anymore from the ex-Yugoslav countries, which did use to have quite a proud and interesting national cinema. Maybe it is lack of distribution or my ignorance, but what you say suggests it is more than that as well.

      As for the Romanian New Wave films, yes ideally they should be generating a cultural discourse as a kind of mirror to wider society. Maybe in Romania this happens on a small scale since they won all these festival prizes. But, even though I believe watching these films will be bittersweet for you as they might hit close to home in their depiction of corruption, institutional failures and societal maladies, as individual film fans we really owe it to ourselves to watch these films! They’re such strong, intelligent and well-made films and not just Mungiu’s, but also especially Corneliu Porumboiu and Cristi Puiu.

      1. Yes, these corruption-related issues go beyond the Balkans, across the all of the former Eastern bloc. Sadly, the population doesn’t understand the destructive magnitude of these kind of practices, that they affect us all, and are not merely a product of the “nasty political elites” vs. the “good folk”. So, I will surely relate to the Romanian New Wave when it comes to this topic. Leaving the politics aside, when it comes to our national cinema, you didn’t miss anything of importance, since I must sadly admit, there is nothing or very little, when it comes to contemporary Croatian cinema. There is “Zvizdan”, or “High Sun” which gained some recognition at Cannes, but sadly, since the dominant ideology here is nationalism, most of the films take a stance as anti-nationalist or nationalist, and in this case, it is the first. option It portrays the multi-ethnic relations during the war and after it (between Serbs and Croats. Sadly, the Croats cannot go beyond their historical obsessions, and do not really understand that the international audience doesn’t really care (and should not) that much for our local problems (especially when it comes to ethnicity), and do not have the will/knowledge & creativity to go beyond it, and aspire for universal. The same problem is with our literature, and our greatest novelists like Miroslav Krleža and Ranko Marinković, are too much obsessed with the local setting and didn’t really gain that much recognition in Europe, although they are great. In Serbia, the only film which caught the attention beyond the Balkans was, as far as I can see is an exploitation film “A Serbian Film”, which caught the attention because of its shock value, and is often compared to Salo, but I’d say that on the level of ideas and its philosophy, it’s much more vulgar and base, and hollow. The main premise is: “In Serbia, you’re f*cked from the moment you’re born.” What an ingenious premise! (irony)

        Yes, you are right Yugoslav cinema had some really interesting films, “Black New Wave” gained some international recognition and is worthy of mention. Now, national cinemas have fallen apart, Croatian government invests very little in culture, and a lot in sports, mainly soccer. So us, “artistic types” are in many ways left behind, when it comes to financing projects. And then, there is corruption in form of cliques, setups when it comes to financing and so on. I will most certainly watch the Romanian New Wave, and not just Mungiu. Thank you so much for your elaborate introduction into the movement!

      2. Thanks for your thorough and illuminating reply. As an outsider, I think I get what you mean about the nationalistic and ethnic still holding sway, it is of course a difficult and dark legacy to overcome. Isn’t this obsession with the nationalistic rather than the universal part of the reason for the decline of Kusturica?

        At the same time, some 90s Yugoslav films did reach the universal through the specific especially with that typical dark humour which the Black New Wave had: Pretty Village Pretty Flame, Before the Rain, or No Man’s Land. Nothing much of that calibre since then I guess? I’ll try to keep an eye out for this High Sun.

        And yes, I’ve seen A Serbian Film, and it’s more one to meet the needs of those edgy misanthropes who love shock-bait, nothing very serious or artistic at all!

      3. Sorry for the late replay, I spent Christmas with my family and relaxed for a few days, wanted to be in the right mood for a reply on this.

        It is a dark legacy, difficult to overcome, complex and intricate, as one can see if he studies it even briefly. What happened in these parts of Europe in the 20th century often reminds me of Aeschylus’ “Orestia”. Agamemnon sacrifices his child, Clytemnestra murders him, Orestes avenges his father by murdering his mother. All in all, a circle of blood revenge potentially without end, and the only way to overcome it is by imposing the rule of law (Athens and the transformation of Furies) In the relations between states it’s much more difficult, (and when one regime is related to the one which ruled before it). One could say that the Hague tribunal was an attempt to do so, but as far as I can see, it did not do much good to heal the wounds.

        I must admit that I haven’t seen Kusturica’s films, and I was born at the beginning of 90s, but as far as I can deduce, you are most probably right. It was impossible at that time to stay unaffected by the regime change, growing nationalism, war etc. I must admit that I have seen very few of the Black New Wave films. It was much more interesting for me to delve into Asian cinema, than the relics of the past I’ve never lived in, but I am sure that one point I will get interested in it.

  2. Thanks for the reply and hope you had a good Christmas!

    Yes, I get what you mean. There is something tragic in the classical sense and almost timeless about this cycle of violence and hatred. I think the film Before the Rain actually goes some way to really capturing that, I recommend it if you haven’t seen it, a 1990s film by (I think) a Macedonian director.

    I’ve so far not really been a big fan of Kusturica’s films, that I’ve seen, but he was a critical darling for a while in the early and mid 1990s (won at Cannes twice) but I meant in the last 15-20 years he seems more interested in nationalism now, which is a shame.

  3. Yes, it is really hard to escape this tragic circle, but as one historian has noted, it can be understood, since countries of Eastern and Southeastern Europe have suffered deeply. I have some terrible news, you have most likely heard about – the city of Petrinja and the surrounding villages were devastated by a terrible earthquake yesterday, we still don’t know how many dead and wounded there are. Serbia has donated 1 million euros to Croatia. It is a wonderful gesture, and there are some steps which are being taken, to normalize the relations in the past few years. Time will heal the wounds, but most importantly, the culture of collaboration is crucial. I am doing a small part by volonteeuring for one Serbian magazine, and since my name is Hrvoje, derived from the name of my country, Hrvatska, it is all the more symbolic.

    Although a Muslim, Kusturica opted for the Serbian nationalism in the 90s, pro-Milošević side, and it has proven to be one the wrong side of history. It is sad in a way. I will watch “Before the Rain” ceirtanly, thank you so much for the recommendation and taking an interest in this small but beautiful part of the world and its sufferings.

    1. Yes I did hear about the news, very sad. What a terrible year it’s been 😦 Hope at least you and your loved ones are now safe, sending positive thoughts to Hrvatska.

      1. Thank you for your kind words. Yes, terrible. In addition to the pandemic, which is terrible enough, we had two devastating earthquakes, the second being even far worse than the first one. We will get through this, but we will need every ounce of strength and courage to do so. Me and my loved ones are safe, although we felt the earthquake strongly, it opened up some old wounds… But they will heal in time.

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