‘What do you imagine? Of course I felt pressure,” says Cristian Mungiu, the director of Beyond the Hills, in an interview at the recent 28th Haifa International Film Festival, which runs through October 8 at the Haifa Cinematheque and other theaters throughout the city.

The pressure this soft-spoken Romanian filmmaker is talking about is fulfilling the high expectations created by his previous film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which won the Palme d’Or – the most prestigious prize in the film world – at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007.

That film, the story of a pregnant woman in Bucharest in the Eighties, and her friend who tries to help her get an abortion, was hailed as a masterpiece. Mungiu, at 39, found himself in the enviable but complicated position of being able to make any movie he wanted as a follow-up.

“I got all kinds of offers,” he recalls. Hollywood came calling, of course. “But I didn’t want to make a film where I wasn’t the one responsible for everything: the script, the direction, the actors.” His fame was such that he was offered opportunities outside of the realm of filmmaking altogether: to run for the European parliament and to stage opera in Vienna. But the only choice for Mungiu was “what story to tell next [on film].”

On the surface, his decision seems an unlikely one: Beyond the Hills is based on the true story of a young woman who died in a rural Romanian convent in 2005 in what the press termed an exorcism. But while the movie may sound sensational, it is anything but.

Mungiu actually laughed when at a Haifa screening, one of the festival programmers described the film as “long and demanding” in his introduction. Mungiu graciously told the audience that he understood anyone who needed to run after the 150-minute film was shown, but said that he would stay for a Q & A “if there is even one question.”

In fact, there were many people who wanted to discuss the deliberate, meticulously paced film, which won a joint Best Actress Award for its stars, Cristina Fluter and Cosmina Stratan, at the Cannes Film Festival this year, as well as the screenplay award for Mungiu.

The director, a former journalist, followed the 2005 case closely, and found in it “a spectacular subject.” Reading about it on the Internet six years later, he was impressed by “how completely polarized were the comments on it. People were extremely pro and extremely against,” the handling of what was an apparently mentally ill young woman by an Orthodox priest and nuns.

“The story drew breath and lived and developed” in the years that followed the death, he says.

Beyond the Hills is a layered and complex tale of two young women in crisis, facing an often hostile world, and that respect is similar to 4 Months.

Voichita (Stratan) and Alina (Fluter) grew up together in a grim orphanage. As close as sisters, they became lovers when they reached adolescence.

The children in this facility were the victims of sexual abuse and apparently forced to pose for pornography. Alina left and went to Germany, where she worked at menial jobs and suffered from loneliness and depression. Voichita took refuge in a convent, where she eventually became a nun. Alina comes to visit her there, and Voichita hopes she will embrace Orthodox Christianity and stay. But Alina wants Voichita to accompany her back to Germany. When Alina suffers some kind of breakdown at the convent, the priest at first sends her to a psychiatric hospital. Voichita encourages him to allow her to come back to the convent, where the priest and nuns’ version of a therapy leads to Alina’s death.

“Nobody will ever know precisely what happened,” says Mungiu. “But what’s important is how it happened.” The director, who is uncomfortable with the word, “metaphor,” says the movie is an examination “of relative good and evil. Everyone tries to do good but does evil. It’s about different aspects of love, what people are asked to do in the name of love, and about violence, guilt and free will.”

While the convent in the film is Orthodox Christian, Mungiu sees the film not as a critique of any particular faith, but as a look at religious devotion in general. “When you are following religious faith, you still experience the guilt for the actions you took in the name of religion. You can’t escape. You are still given the freedom to decide what to do.”

Mungiu’s quiet intensity and obvious sincerity make talking to him like sitting in on a thrilling university philosophy seminar. But while he has thought the material through on an intellectual level, he didn’t want his actresses to be too cerebral in their approach. “I wanted them to relate to the truth of each moment, and to feel it happen,” and not to get too caught up “in the idea of a character.” He also used a great deal of his actresses’ insight into the characters. “You can’t force an actor to be in a moment that doesn’t fit them. They’re not puppets.”

He filmed chronologically as much as possible, but was open to changing his script as he worked. “On set, you always have to check what works and sometimes find a different way.”

Mungiu has been going around the world to present Beyond the Hills in every country where it will be released, but hopes in the near future to spend more time with his wife and two young sons.

“I never decide on a new project until this one is behind me,” he says. “You have to find very strong energy in your next project. You have to fall in love with it, because you will have to deal with so many people and convince them to work with you. And you will have to devote so many years of your life to it.”

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