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Zimbio Exclusive Interview: Writer/Director Cristian Mungiu Talks 'Beyond the Hills'

From left: Cristina Flutur, Cristian Mungiu, and Cosmina Stratan. (Photo by Getty Images)

Last year, Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu won Best Screenplay at The Cannes Film Festival for his subtle thriller Beyond the Hills, while his two leading ladies, Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, shared the festival's Best Actress prize. Released this year in the U.S. the film follows two young women on different paths after growing up in an orphanage in Romania. While one has become a devoted nun, pious to the core, the other has not given herself to the church, but has found the outside world unbearable without her best friend. The film is a deliberately-paced examination of the church's role in society and its powerful effect on its devotees. We were excited to interview Mungiu via email about Beyond the Hills, his first feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and the themes he works with onscreen.

Relationships between women permeate your films. Why is it a compelling subject?
Actually, this is a feeling coming from my two best known films—4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days and Beyond the Hills—but in West or in Tales from the Golden Age there are men as main characters as well. My films are story driven, not character driven, and I seldom consider the gender of the protagonists before deciding if I’m interested by a story or not. These two films with female protagonists do not only describe their relationship but speak about matters like personal freedom, compromise, sacrifice, choices in life, the role of religion in society today, social indifference, love and friendship, violence, faith or free will—all issues that transcend the gender border.

Do you feel women have a voice in the film industry? Does it concern you?
I come from a country where we have to fight constantly in order to be able to produce a few films per year—all of them very low budget —and where, at the end, you can’t find a free screen to show the film because of the abundance of American mainstream productions. So our agenda, and worries, are quite different.

Did you feel pressure to create a film as well-received as 4 months, 3 weeks and 2

What was most difficult for me was to come up with something new and fresh in terms of how I understand cinema. You can’t reinvent your language every time to start over again, and this is normal, but spectators will be less surprised by your method because they are aware of it already.

What's the secret to building tension/suspense?
To create suspense you need to know more as spectator as the character on the screen knows, tension comes rather from a menace that you experience as spectator,  but this is very basic. Creating tension or suspense is not necessarily difficult, every B film can do it, what’s difficult is to create tension/suspense only using everyday life situations, preserving the feeling of realism, shooting just one take per scene as we do and not being manipulative by using music, editing or all kinds of effects. Try to respect this ethical code and you’ll see that all of a sudden filmmaking becomes a bit more complicated.

Will you ever do an English language film? What actors would you like to work with?
Maybe, but ideally I’d like to also write and co-produce it—the way I work now. There are a lot of great actors that I like. Ideally, I’d like to offer very well known actors the possibility of escaping their public image and of showing they have enough talent and strength to do something completely different.

View Cristian Mungiu Pictures »
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