Romanian director Cristian Mungiu said Saturday he didn’t necessarily expect audiences to like his latest film, about exorcism in the modern-day Orthodox church.
“I don’t want the film to be liked,” Mungiu told a press conference marking the premiere of the movie, Dupa dealuri (Beyond the Hills) at the Cannes Film Festival. “I want to challenge (audiences) to have an opinion,” he said.
The film comes five years after Mingiu became the first Romanian to win the festival’s coveted Palme d’Or for his exploration of daily life in Romania under former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days.
Set in an Orthodox monastery in rural Romania, Beyond the Hills is about two young women who formed an intense and intimate bond during a difficult childhood in one of Ceausescu’s notorious orphanages.
But while Voichita, played by Cosmina Stratan, later turned to religion, Alina, played by Cristina Flutur, has struggled to establish a life for herself.
When Alina arrives at the monastery where Voichita lives, she believes Voichita will leave with her so the two can start a new life together. But Voichita has found a family in the monastery and is reluctant to leave.
“What are you afraid of?” Alina angrily asks Voichita early in the film. “Are you afraid of living?”
Running for two and half hours, Beyond the Hills draws on a true story about a young woman who died seven years ago during an exorcism attempt by an Orthodox priest to save her from the clutches of Satan in the remote Romanian monastery.
In developing his film, Mungiu was also inspired by books by writer Tatiana Niculescu-Bran, who set about documenting the case, which caused a media sensation.
“It is not a film about friendship but about love; different kinds of love and what people do in the name of love,” said Mingiu.
“It’s also about abandonment,” he said, since the film touches on the horrors of life for the two women in the orphanage.
But at the heart of Mungiu’s story is a clash between faith and emotional need with Alina increasingly challenging the church and the authority of the priest, played by Valeriu Andriuta.
The priest, who is a man with little interest in the outside world, declares at one point: “The west has lost the true faith.”
Beyond the Hills is Mingiu’s third feature film. It is also the standardbearer for Eastern European cinema in the 22-movie race for the Palme d’Or award for best picture.
Mingiu said he wanted to shed light on other aspects of Romania’s post-communist life, such as the under-resourced hospitals, the high price of medicine and the backward systems of bureaucracy.
He also wants to examine the Orthodox church, to which many people have flocked in the new democratic era, disorientated and emotionally scarred by what was once one of Eastern Europe’s most brutal dictatorships.
However, the Orthodox church portrayed in Beyond the Hills offers a return to an almost feudal world. The monastery in the film has no electricity and the nuns spend their days pursuing their faith alongside menial tasks.
Faced with Alina’s increasingly disturbed and aggressive behaviour, the priest declares her “an enemy of the church” and sets about releasing her demons.
She is chained to a cross-like structure and not fed for days, while the priest reads her sections of a religious text aimed at drawing her away from the devil.
Still, Mingiu does not see his film as taking a stand on who was right or wrong in the story. “I’m trying not to criticize anyone,” he said. The film is more about superstitions.”