Cannes 2012: Director Cristian Mungiu on Returning to the Fest With 'Beyond the Hills'

Director Christian Mungiu P 2012

The 2007 Palm d'Or winner discusses how his life has changed since winning Cannes with his film "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," and his hopes for this year's festival.

Romanian director Cristian Mungiu exploded onto the international cinema stage in 2007 with his abortion-themed drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which won the Palme d’Or and heralded a new golden age in Romanian cinema.

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Five years later, Mungiu is back in Cannes Competition with Beyond The Hills. If his earlier film looked at the corroding effects of the Communist state on ordinary Romanians, in Beyond The Hills Mungiu focuses on corruption and abuse in another all-powerful institution: the Romanian Orthodox Church.

Ahead of his film’s Cannes premiere, Mungiu spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the impact of winning cinema’s biggest festival, the trouble with the Romanian Church and his chances of going home with a second Palme d’Or.

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The Hollywood Reporter: When Steven Soderbergh won the Palme d’Or with his first film, Sex Lies and Videotape, he famously said “It’s all downhill from here.” How can you top the incredible success of winning Cannes with your second film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days?

Cristian Mungiu: Probably I can’t — but there is something else that concerns me more: I am not sure my understanding of cinema deepens as I grow older. When I started as a filmmaker, it was all clear for me while now I have more doubts than certitudes. Feeling pleased by the film you do is sometimes more difficult and more important than being successful with it and feeling pleased is what I wish the most

THR: How did your life and career change as a result of the win in Cannes in 2007?

Mungiu: It was fun travelling business class for a while, and it was easier to find money for this new film but it’s not like my whole life changed the next day after getting the Palme — primarily because I didn’t want it to change. I have the same office, drive the same car and still do commercials from time to time, just like before 2007.

THR: The Communist state loomed ominously over the characters of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. In Beyond The Hills, it’s the Romanian Orthodox Church. How do the two organizations compare?

Mungiu: The film marks this difference between faith, religion in general and Church, as an institution. Beyond the Hills speaks about all three of them but mostly about the side effects of interpreting religion literally. It also aims to speak about the spirit of Christianity as opposed to the strict unquestioning obeying of regulations and commandments. Last but not least, the film speaks about indifference, how 50 years of Communism followed by 20 years of disappointments altered a people’s moral sense.

THR: What position does the Church have in Romania since the fall of Communism?

Mungiu: The Orthodox Church was popular even before and it became more popular, very powerful and rich after the fall of communism. Some 90 percent of the Romanians declare themselves religious in polls and the politicians understood that criticizing anything connected to the Orthodox Church is taboo. Still, my feeling is that belief in the deep humanist values of Christianity hasn’t spread accordingly. The top priority of the Orthodox Church right now is building a cathedral called Romanian People’s Salvation Cathedral — placed in Bucharest in the courtyard of Ceausescu’s enormous House of the People. Building the cathedral is estimated to cost something between 200 and 400 million Euros. It is hard to understand why this is top priority in a poor country with some 20,000 churches already but with less than 5,000 schools and less than 500 hospitals.

THR: How does Beyond the Hills compare to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days stylistically and thematically?

Mungiu: Beyond the Hills is also shot using one shot per scene, no matter how long or complicated the scene is and it doesn’t have music — both decisions being made in order to make the author as little visible as possible and to give the spectator the feeling he has to decide what’s important and what’s not. Like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Beyond the Hills is also about a couple of girls who have a special relationship and a man influencing their decisions. The greatest difference comes from the amount of time in which the story happens: 4 Months was designed like a thriller while Beyond the Hills is more like a novel in which you have to understand the context before you can understand the incident, its consequences and the degree of responsibility of each character involved.
THR: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was part of a new wave of Romanian films that were critically praised worldwide. What is the situation within the country — how difficult is it to get your movies and the movies of your contemporaries seen at home?

Mungiu: The number of multiplexes grew in the last years and also the number of admissions but at the same time with the loss of old single screen cinemas, the audience for the Romanian films disappeared almost completely. It is common for an American mainstream feature now to gather over 100 thousand admissions in Romanian theaters while most of the Romanian films gather less than 10 thousand spectators per title. Young people prefer to download films from the Internet while older spectators don’t go to the cinema any longer, preferring to watch TV. The understanding of young spectators is that film means entertainment — they never got the chance to watch anything else than American mainstream productions and therefore anything else is just weird for them. I assume the audience for art films in Romania is pretty much lost for good. Our films have way more spectators abroad then at home.
THR: What are your hopes coming to Cannes with your new film? A second Palme perhaps?

Mungiu: It would be nice but it is rather unlikely. So I stick to my next best wish: having a holiday after working continuously for some 18 months.

Read more from THR's Cannes Daily No. 4 here (PDF).