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Relationships between young women fascinate Romanian filmmaker Christian Mungiu. In 4 Months, 3 Week, and 2 Days, Mungiu focused on a woman determined to help her friend have an underground abortion during the Ceausescu regime. The film won the Palme d’Or when it debuted at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. For his follow-up, Beyond the Hills, Mungiu again steels his gaze toward young men, except this time he adds a different stifling context. Based on the non-fiction novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, the film is about Alina (Cristina Flutur), who leaves Germany to visit her friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) in a convent. Alina is obsessed with Voichita, possibly in love, and when she behaves erratically, a priest (Valeriu Andriuta) struggles to intervene. After a trip to the hospital, the priest sees an exorcism as the only recourse.

Although Mungiu’s film has the same plot beats as William Friedkin’s 1973 horror classic, Beyond the Hills couldn’t be more different from it. Its style is austere and spare, so it never exploits the audience. Mungiu is far more demanding: he forces us to think about what is happening to his characters since religion dictates can never say what they precisely feel. They all have good intentions, yet by the time Mungiu reaches his haunting final shot, there no easy resolutions. I got a chance to interview Mungiu about the film, its impact within the religious community, and how he wants audiences to interact with his characters.

When and how did you decide to adapt the Bran novels into film?

I was following the press about the real incident from the beginning – gathering press clips and internet posts since 2005. Still, I didn’t really think about making a film starting from it – or from the books – because a very respected well known Romanian director, Lucian Pintilie, announced publicly his interest for the story. He wrote a screenplay and for some years it looked like he’s going to shoot it. Finally in 2012 it became clear that he abandoned the project. I started thinking about a way of tacking that subject that would avoid the spectacular tabloid side of it and when I found it I started writing. I didn’t adapt the novels, I’d say I agreed with Mrs. Bran position of not taking sides, of not being judgmental; but while her books have a rather journalistic approach, the screenplay is mostly fictional.

How much did you rehearse with your actors, if at all? What was that process like?

First of all, in the casting, I read all the scenes in the screenplay – with the actors on the short list – several times before making the final decision – so at the end of the process I pretty much know what each actor is capable of and they pretty much know what I want. This is the stage when I explain a lot and even act a lot for them to make myself clear. Later on, we pass to step number two: staging the situations on the set – in the weeks before the shooting. By know, I expect them to know the dialogues by heart. In this stage, we pretty much decide about the position and movements of the actors and of the camera but it’s also another occasion to rehearse and to adjust the dialogues. So when we actually get to shoot the scenes, we pretty much know what we need. Nevertheless, having the entire scene in just one shot is a very complicated process and we often shoot 20 or 30 takes and sometimes more. From one take to the other we adjust the rhythm, the intensity of the scene, we add or drop movements, we try slightly different ways of interpreting. We change small things in the dialogue until it sounds very natural but once we got there I expect the actors to respect it in detail – and often after the shooting we record some takes just for the sound. We seldom shoot more than one scene per day and complex scenes need several shooting days. It’s also important to keep your mind free as sometimes what you’ve prepared doesn’t work well enough and you need to come up with a fresh idea.

During the exorcism scenes, the camera was kept at a distance from Alina and the action. Why did you keep what was happening to her so obscure?

For me it is always was more important to show the effect of what happens on the characters – than to be illustrative about what happens. Furthermore, as a filmmaker you have to respect a certain intimacy, integrity and dignity of the character – it’ s part of my commitment of not appealing to cheap emotional tricks for the sake of shocking, impressing  or pleasing the spectators.

Are there any characters you sympathize with more than others? 

The idea is to tell the story trying to understanding why each of the characters acted the way they acted in the given situation – without taking sides, without being judgmental, without having preconceived ideas. This way, cinema will become an instrument that will help you to understand more the other – it is used too often nowadays in a very manipulative way by the filmmakers that wish to push their perspective of the story on spectators while I believe that what’s really respectful is to deliver the facts and the circumstances and to respect the spectator’s right to make his own opinion.

What has surprised you about audience reaction to the film?

I was afraid that the film is kind of long but most of the spectators were so much caught by the tension and rhythm of events that they didn’t perceive it as being long. I was also very pleased to notice that most of the spectators were able to detect that it’s not just about a local story but it speaks about attitudes, values and a certain way of understanding religion and about a way of making personal choices – that can be met in all cultures, on all continents.

To what extent did you mean your film to be critical of religion, if at all?

The film is not meant to be critical but honest, precise, detailed and very close to the truth and to a certain realism that should be the primary source of cinema.  At the end, some viewers might perceive it as a critic of religion because they feel that the facts themselves accuse these people – but I haven’t invented the facts, and I don’t include my opinion about these facts in the film, even if I have one.

Do you think of yourself as a cultural ambassador for Romania? 

I rather feel as an ambassador of cinema. From this perspective, I feel I need to be honest and responsible with my means as a filmmaker and not manipulative and I need to speak up the truth – which sometimes is a problem for my compatriots. People experience kind of a patriotic pride whenever a Romanian film wins some award but at the same time they wish our films didn’t bring up publicly some local realities they experience as being shameful – instead of fighting those realities directly.

It is very jarring when the doctor finally chides the Priest. Is she meant to shock us, the audience, out of the world of the monastery?

Nothing is meant to shock the audience or to have a specific effect on the audience – every scene and line are meant to be believable in the given situation. In that specific scene, the fictional doctor says what the doctor in reality said – and what I assume would be quite a wide-spread position for a doctor. At the same time everything is relative: the doctor is not precisely accurate about her assumption regarding the time of death of that girl while on the other side, the nuns feel they can’t be blamed as long as they were only trying to help Alina.

What do you think is wrong with Alina, if anything?

She’s different – and she she’s not conformist: she has the strength and boldness to confront people; and she’s very hurt, she’s fighting to get back the affection Voichita had for her – and she’s jealous and she’s confused – God is such a difficult opponent to fight against – and she’s generous and devoted to her friend and she tries to save her from a path she believes to be wrong. But you know, for the same behavior, the doctors or the church could have different explanations – and names.

How have Christian communities, particularly those in Romania, responded to the film?

It is difficult to generalize but I’d say the film made them very curious – and the reactions varied from condemning the film without watching it to considering that God speaks through the film. In between there were reactions of people who noticedthat the film doesn’t takes sides but challenges you to think more in detail about all the consequences of your choices and about the role and position of religion in the modern society. Somebody made a remark after a Q&A – that the film makes you leave the theater with less preconceptions than when you enter – although it won’t turn a believer into an atheist and vice versa.

Were you thinking about William Friedkin’s film The Exorcist, or the horror genre more generally, while you were making the film? How did they influence you?

I’m always trying to get the same effects of the genre films but avoiding all clichés – but Beyond the Hills is not primarily about an exorcism, it’s rather about ignorance, incompetence, lack of education, indifference and lack of empathy for the other as a result of long lasting poverty – it’s about the subtle way in which violence advances in a community, it’s about how relative good and evil can be and it’s ultimately about free will and choices you make in life.