As Unclear as Life Itself: An Interview with Cristian Mungiu

By Costica BradatanSeptember 21, 2013

CRISTIAN MUNGIU'S Beyond the Hills (2012) won the award for Best Screenplay at Cannes, and its two leads shared the Best Actress Award. It is Romania's selection for Best Foreign Language Film for the 85th Academy Awards. Mungiu spoke with LARB editor Costica Bradatan about the film.


COSTICA BRADATAN: Much of your latest film, Beyond the Hills, seems like a painting composed on a canvas of snow. The innocence of the young nuns — the whole monastic universe — resonates very well with the silent, white landscape. Then, something terrible irrupts into this peaceful world, after which nothing remains the same. The splash of mud in the final scene seals the end of innocence. That mud, however, also obscures everybody’s vision, the vision of the people inside the car — policemen, nuns, the priest — and ours, inside the movie theater. We can’t see what will happen to them next, but more importantly we don’t fully understand what has happened in the film: what has caused what, who is to blame, who is the victim, who the victimizer. Are you not concerned that, in this way, you might alienate the audience?

CRISTIAN MUNGIU: First of all, how can one say what “the audience” understands? Who gets this feedback from the audience? We all assume a lot of things about “the audience,” but in fact it’s all empiric. And is there just one audience, one that always has the same perception, or do we talk about different audiences, present at different screenings, on different evenings, in different countries? Would an American viewer and a Romanian viewer take the same things from this film? No. Would a believer and an atheist read it in the same way? No. We had this discussion in the Q&A sessions: the same film is being perceived in many different ways, depending on the viewer’s background. It all depends on what one thinks about religion, faith, and mostly about cinema. Therefore, to be objective or precise with “the message” of the film is just an illusion. And this shouldn’t be the concern of a filmmaker. Films shouldn’t, and can’t, be precise in that respect — they can depict attitudes, characters, situations, but they can’t interpret.

In Beyond the Hills things are as clear — or as unclear — as life itself. What I refuse is to interpret facts for the audience. In real life they have to do this interpretation for themselves, and I think it should be the same with cinema. I offer viewers the story with as many relevant details as possible. Yet, in the end, any interpretation is a mix of what you’ve seen and what you are prepared to understand. I have no intention to make the audience feel ambiguous about what happens in the story, but in life we don’t have just good characters and bad characters. This is the horrible simplification of a certain kind of cinema. Most people experience this lack of certitude as discomfort; they are used to watching films that tell them how to read what happens on screen and what to believe. This, for me, is a very simplistic and dysfunctional understanding of storytelling. I challenge viewers to have an opinion — whatever that is, given their education and level of conformism. But this is difficult because it requires an effort of analysis. At the same time, this is also more respectful to the viewer and, ultimately, even more ethical. I am not trying to impose my own point of view, I am just trying to bring forward stories that encourage people to think about important issues that they would otherwise never bother to think about. This could be one of the purposes of cinema after all.

CB: Beyond the Hills invites debate, but also misunderstanding, misinterpretation, even controversy, all of which, indeed, didn’t take long to come. It started, appropriately, with the film’s premiere at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, when you had the honor to be booed. How does it feel to be controversial? How does it affect your work? Or you are one of those people who thrive on controversy?

CM: Actually, I don’t have a special attraction for controversy — on the contrary, I’d say. But I feel that films should bring forward important issues, which sometimes may be seen as controversial. This is the case with religion or abortion, for example. Yet, the way I speak about these issues is as balanced as possible. I feel that people should have an opinion on these matters, that they don’t think enough about important aspects of their own lives. Cinema might give them an impulse to think more.

CB: In Beyond the Hills you tell a story by leaving much out, by not telling it, as it were. Like in a classical Japanese painting, to remain within the confines of the same metaphor, the space you deliberately leave blank comes to play an important role. There is so much that is left untold in your story: What is exactly the nature of Voichita and Alina’s relationship? What happened to them at the orphanage? What is exactly the condition that Alina suffers from? And, above all, who is responsible for her death? What are the advantages of this kind of storytelling?

CM: Actually, it’s all part of the effort of recreating on screen something that looks like reality, but which, nevertheless, is not the reality. In life you never have all the information, all the answers, all the interpretations — everything is relative. Many of the reasons behind people’s decisions remain blurry, hidden. Most of the decisions we make, in any given context, are the result of a mix of logic and hazard, all influenced by a lot of other details. We accept this in life but it disturbs us in film because, for a very long time, the narrative arts — and cinema in particular — have been perceived less as a quotation from life, and more as an interpretation of it. How could one define the nature of the relationship between two people who are in love? How could one be precise about somebody’s mental condition, especially when that person is so troubled? Who’s responsible for her death? I don’t know. This may also be why the story is worth telling — because it is not so simple to say.

CB: In some interviews you’ve mentioned the problem of “education” as being at the heart of the story you tell in this film. For most non-Romanian viewers this may not be immediately intuitive. Would you care to elaborate on this idea a little more?

CM: Good intentions without education, without knowledge, without free will, are not enough: it’s like trying to help a person injured in a car crash without knowing anything about fractures or emergency situations. (For all your good intention, you will very likely kill that person.) Or like how “medicine” was five centuries ago, when people irrationally hoped that the right incantations would cure the sick. The important thing here is to teach yourself how to think on your own, before the emergency situation even occurs. Every time you use a social, moral, or spiritual cliché you just get closer to an irrational behavior, which might push you to make the wrong decision in a situation like the one presented in Beyond the Hills. Superstitions, for example, can be more dangerous than they seem to be at a first sight; they lead people to make decisions on a completely irrational basis. And, then, there is no systematic education against superstition.

The responsibility for this tragedy is not only of the characters you see in the film. The tragedy is the result of layers and layers of neglect — for example, the neglect to invest in education (partly for objective reasons like the lack of resources). In a case like this, the responsibility is ultimately collective — you have a whole community that shares the guilt.

CB: This is interesting. Can you elaborate a bit?

CM: On the one hand, in this story there are the religious people, who do things out of their good heart, but they are wrong because they enforce an inadequate solution to the problem. On the other hand, you see the social institutions’ indifference and dysfunctions. Because of the scarcity of resources and the lack of education, the families of these girls abandon them; the orphanage gives them a shelter, but not the affection they need. When they are 19, these girls are sent out into a world that doesn’t offer them any real opportunities. So they are forced to emigrate or to become religious in order to survive. That’s their life in the midst of an aggressive or, at the best, indifferent urban community. The doctors — who could save that girl — perplex even the religious people by combining medical, rational solutions with personal Christian advice about the benefit of prayer in all situations.

My desire to make this film was born out of a feeling that I live in a rather alienated society, where even those driven by good faith fail to do the right thing, and where the majority of people live with the illusion that they believe in God, but act as if there is no God.

CB: Usually, your kind of realism comes with a good measure of social criticism. However, not only do you refrain from passing judgment, but you seem to do so programmatically, as a matter of artistic method. You don’t do any finger pointing, only gaze pointing at the most. Your films deal with serious social issues and ethical dilemmas, and yet you seem to care only about the integrity of the storytelling. This is maybe why a superior sense of fairness permeates your work. Is the requirement not to moralize part of the artist’s morality?

CM: As a filmmaker, your own responsibility is toward your work, toward the truth and the moral use of what you do as a storyteller. As a mere citizen, the director can do many things, can occupy whatever social position he fancies, but as a storyteller his moves are rather limited: his first responsibility is to respect the ethics of his art. Cinematically speaking, a moralizing story is poor; it is just a bad film.

Beyond the Hills shows again my commitment to let the viewer be the judge of the story I bring forth. To many of the people who have seen it, the film speaks about social responsibility, about love, freedom and choices, about the necessity of questioning what we see around, and the importance of free will in society. Beyond the Hills also opens up a debate about the role of religion in society today, just as it speaks about how relative the distinction between good and evil can be at times. So, in a certain sense, it can be seen as moralizing because it encourages people to think about all these things. And yet, in another sense, it is not moralizing because it does not tell you what to believe about all these things. And should you wish to watch the film just to follow the story – that is up to you as well.

CB: I think that your representation of the Romanian Orthodox Church is remarkably fair, but it is merciless. Or, I should rather say: it is merciless because it is fair. There is nothing special about this church, it does not seem to represent anything higher — it is just one of the many failed Romanian institutions that, far from helping people, keep messing with their lives, from birth to death. The failed exorcism comes at the end of a long series of failures. It would probably be wrong to say that the exorcist causes Alina’s death. He doesn’t kill her, but he doesn’t help her to stay alive either. In your film, the church does not come across as malevolent, but as useless, and I am not sure which one is worse. Is this is a correct reading of Beyond the Hills?

CM: It is all a matter of perspective. I remember, before I started writing the screenplay, I read something online about this “exorcism.” They said that, since the priest was trying to bring her peace, he succeeded. So, from that perspective, her death is an unfortunate side effect, but you can’t say that the exorcism failed.

The film describes life in a given society. It observes, from the same distance, not only how the church or the religious people behave in a given situation, but also how other social institutions, and other people, react. Many in this society, not only the religious people, are ignorant and superstitious. At least the religious folk have the excuse of trying to do what they can for this girl. But they act in their own way — according to how they see life. In their minds, they are not more blamable than a parent is who forces her child to take in an unpleasant medicine. The film speaks about what happens when we take things for granted, when we do not question what happens around, when we interpret religion literally and believe that the devil is a reddish animal with horns.

I think the film draws a distinction between the Church as an institution (religion as an ideology, and faith as a personal option) and superstition, which is purely irrational. Unfortunately, in today’s Orthodoxy religion is mostly about fear — people tend to be believers out of fear. I think religion had a great role in history, in civilizing people and setting moral and ethical rules in society and keeping good relationship among people in small communities. Today, however, the essence of the moral values that religion seeks to pass on to people reaches them only very rarely.

CB: For a film about an exorcism, the absence of anything otherworldly is striking in Beyond the Hills. The world of your film is a place that God must have left long ago, if he ever was there, and where not even the devil bothers to show up. As such, the exorcism is as meaningless as is the demonic possession it purports to cure. If people are under any possession in this film, it is not the devil that possesses them, but ignorance and an inability to function properly as a community.

CM: Well, this might be an old-fashioned representation of the devil. The devil is not a guy with reddish face and horns. Devil can be ignorance or even misinformed benevolence, devil can be behind the most honestly felt intentions to help others. And then, Beyond the Hills is not about exorcism — the film does not give you a firm answer regarding the causes of this girl’s crisis. She may look possessed to the priest and the nuns, but for non-religious people she can be just sick, furious, troubled, jealous, or simply with a strong personality. It is just a matter of standpoint. Nobody knows if there are people possessed by the devil and, if they are, how they react — we can only imagine.

CB: In terms of the film’s implicit theology, one can find certain Bergmanian traces in Beyond the Hills. There is an unbearable cosmic silence that envelops the whole story. It is a very cold world that you depict here (reminiscent of Bergman’s Winter Light). Alina, who is suspected of demonic possession, is crucified in a manner strikingly similar to that in which the young witch, who had “intercourse with the devil,” is immobilized in Bergman’s Seventh Seal. They both end up dead, though in different ways and for different reasons. And both deaths are, each in its own way, a mockery of the crucifixion. Yet, in a godless world such a mockery cannot be but extremely desperate because it is meaningless. Did you have Bergman in mind at any time while making Beyond the Hills?

CM: Your perspective is very much that of a critic with a lot of references in mind. As a filmmaker, however, I act completely differently. I try to clear my mind of as many film references as possible and to stick only to the “reality” of the story — that is, to the most plausible way things could have happened, given what we know about the characters, the evolution of the story up to that moment, the real incidents (if any) that inspire the story. I don’t want the scenes to signify anything, to “stand for” anything, to have some symbolic meaning, which I would thus rationally attach to them. I want to depict raw facts, and if they are true to life, they will bring about their “own” significance. Not the significance that I would prefer them to have, but a more intrinsic one, carried by the facts themselves.

LARB Contributor

Costica Bradatan is a professor of humanities in the Honors College at Texas Tech University in the United States and an honorary research professor of philosophy at University of Queensland in Australia. He is the author and editor of more than a dozen books, including Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers (Bloomsbury, paperback, 2018) and In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility (Harvard University Press, 2023). His work has been translated into more than 20 languages, including Dutch, Italian, Turkish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Arabic, and Farsi. Bradatan also writes book reviews, essays, and op-ed pieces for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, Aeon, The New Statesman, and other similar venues.


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