Cannes Check: Cristian Mungiu's 'Beyond the Hills'
The director: Cristian Mungiu (Romanian, 44 years old)
The talent: A number of first-time actresses pepper the cast list of Mungiu's latest, including his two leads, Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur. Keen followers of the Romanian New Wave may recognize (if not necessarily be able to name) the odd face in support, including a number of bit players from "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days." The biggest name here, relatively speaking? Luminita Gheorghiu, who won an LA Critics' award a few years back for "The Death of Mr. Lazarescu."
Mungiu wrote and produced the film himself. It's interesting, however, to see Belgian brothers (and two-time Palme d'Or winners) Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne on the list of co-producers, just in case its Croisette cred needed any beefing up. "4 Months" cinematographer Oleg Mutu is also, invaluably, back on board -- as mentioned yesterday, this is one of two Competition entries this year shot by him. That film's production designer Mihaela Poenaru returns, joined by Calin Papura, who did some striking work on Francis Ford Coppola's "Youth Without Youth." Editor Mircea Olteanu (who also doubles as sound editor) makes his feature debut here.
The pitch: Mungiu's last feature, the universally celebrated "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," challenged Romania's social and moral authorities with its harrowing study of illegal abortion in the Ceausescu era. The synopsis for his latest promises no less touchy a drama. Like "4 Months," the narrative hinges on the strained friendship of two young women: Alina and Voichita have been like sisters since meeting as children in an orphanage, but have been separated for several years following Alina's move to Germany. They reunite in a remote Romanian convent, where the newly devout Voichita has made a home for herself -- to the exasperation of Alina, who wants to take Voichita back to Germany with her. As Alina challenges the church for custody of her friend, the convent residents fear she is possessed, an order an exorcism. It's heady-sounding stuff, but should afford room for both the director's keen political insight and grim sense of humor.
The pedigree: On the face of it, Mungiu is still a relative newbie in the lineup: "Beyond the Hills" is only the third feature he's directed. (The first, 2002's "Occident," was generously laurelled on the second-tier European festival circuit.) Still, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" proved one doozy of a Competition calling card: perhaps the most universally well-received Palme d'Or pick of recent times, it went on to become an international arthouse sensation, winning top honors at the European Film Awards and scooping awards from the 'Big Three' US critics' groups. (The Academy, infamously, gave it the boot.) As such, it's given Mungiu a loftier status than a passing glance at his CV might imply, though he's maintained his Cannes record with his contribution to a 2009 Un Certain Regard selection, the portmanteau film "Tales of the Golden Age."
The buzz: With five years having elapsed since "4 Months," the pressure on his follow-up feature to deliver is significant: happily, positive advance whispers hint that he's pulled off something special. The film already secured US distribution with Sundance Selects back in February, which suggests it should easily reach the same international arthouse audience that was wowed by Mungiu's last feature. The presence of the Dardennes on the credit list only gilds the lily.
The odds: However much the film has going for it, it's hard to imagine the jury admitting Mungiu to the elite, six-name club on two-time Palme d'Or winners just three features into his career. (Even Bille August had a few more notches on his belt by the time he won his surprising second Palme in 1992.) That said, Cannes juries are less inclined than, say, the Academy to take such figures and precedents into account, not least because the voters change every year: if the film knocks them out, that's really all there is to it. With jury president Nanni Moretti likely to favor films that pack an emotional wallop, "Beyond the Hills" looks a good bet for a prize of some variety -- if they decide Mungiu's been recently enough rewarded, a joint Best Actress award for the two fledgling leads would be a typical jury move.