beyond the hills (cristian mungiu, 2012)

This is the fourth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 4 is called "Romanian New Wave":

From Wikipedia:

"The Romanian New Wave is a genre of realist and often minimalist films made in Romania since the mid-aughts...

Aesthetically, Romanian New Wave films share an austere, realist and often minimalist approach. Furthermore, black humour tends to feature prominently. While several of them are set in the late 1980s, near the end of Nicolae Ceaușescu's totalitarian rule over communist Romania, exploring themes of freedom and resilience, others, however, unfold in modern-day Romania, and delve into the ways the transition to democracy and free-market capitalism has shaped Romanian society after the fall of communism in late 1989."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Romanian New Wave film.

In 1971, Ken Russell released The Devils. If you've seen any of his films (Tommy), you won't be surprised to know that The Devils was over the top, telling the "true" story of sexual possessions of nuns that result in exorcisms. Russell got the story from a book by Aldous Huxley. Russell includes scenes of torture, forced enemas, self-mutilations, and lots and lots of naked women. The film received an "X" rating in both the U.K. and the U.S., and was banned in several other countries.

That's one way to tell a story.

Cristian Mungiu is a Romanian director who takes his time releasing movies. His first feature came out in 2002, and he's only directed four films since then, one as a co-director. Among those films are 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which is a favorite of mine, and Graduation, about which I wrote, "Mungiu likes to plant his camera in one place for long takes. Often in Graduation, those takes are conversations between two people. There is an intimacy to this approach, although the characters often seem to lack that intimacy between each other." This was similar to 4 Months, where I described Mungiu's tendency to find "a place to put his camera that he thinks is appropriate for a scene," and leave it there for extended periods of time, letting the movie emerge from the stationary camera." Mungiu's film are not over the top ... he is the anti-Ken Russell.

Which makes Beyond the Hills particularly interesting, in that it, too, tells the "true" story of an exorcism. And those scenes are terrifying, but not due to the excesses of the director. We are shocked by those scenes because we see them through the eyes of a young woman whose friend is the victim of the ritual. Beyond the Hills isn't a story of an entire city gone mad, but instead is the story of a woman who doesn't fit properly into the life of a Romanian Orthodox convent. There are sexual undertones ... the two women have been in love ... but as with so much else in Mungiu's work, the undertones rise slowly to the surface. He doesn't need forced enemas to make his points.

Mungiu gives us two outstanding performances by the lead actresses, both of whom were making their film debuts, although they were not amateurs. Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur were co-winners of the Best Actress award at Cannes. Flutur has the showier role, but Stratan is the one who really draws us into the story. I said about Graduation that "Mungiu doesn't judge his characters, but neither does he let them off the hook." This is very true for Beyond the Hills. The priest (Valeriu Andriuta) is not a crazed fundamentalist, and we are led to believe he actually wants to break the woman free of possession. The results are sadly inevitable, despite the priest's intentions.

Three top-level films, with one true classic. Mungiu may take his time releasing movies, but they are worth the wait. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. (Among the other films chosen for the challenge were 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.)

graduation (cristian mungiu, 2016)

Cristian Mungiu wrote and directed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a film that made the list of my 50 favorite movies that I did some years ago. For that reason, I looked forward to Graduation, although I didn't know much about it in advance. It takes place in post-Ceaușescu Romania, and while the story it tells is a personal one, the lives of the characters are integrated into their society such that Graduation is never just a drama, never just social commentary, but instead a subtle combination of both.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) is a doctor, honest, respectable. His daughter, Eliza (Maria Dragus) is about to graduate from school and only needs to pass final exams to receive a scholarship to Cambridge. Graduation seems almost idyllic at first, but that doesn't last long. We soon learn that Romeo has a mistress. Eliza is assaulted, and the trauma makes it hard for her to concentrate on those exams. Romeo is insistent on her passing, because he sees Cambridge as Eliza's way out of Romania (another clue that things aren't quite idyllic ... Romeo doesn't want his daughter to live in a corrupt society). She understandably does poorly on the first test, and Romeo decides he will do anything to help his daughter go to England. He sees her as pure ... he sees himself as an honest person in a corrupt society. But then he decides he will have to break a rule (or two) to aid Eliza. Everyone in Romania seems to know someone who can do a favor for someone in return for a favor. Gradually, Romeo is entwined in the very corruption he wants to direct his daughter away from.

Mungiu likes to plant his camera in one place for long takes. Often in Graduation, those takes are conversations between two people. There is an intimacy to this approach, although the characters often seem to lack that intimacy between each other. Those characters, especially Romeo, think of themselves as outside of the general corruption, but as events unfold, they are forced to confront their own involvement. Mungiu doesn't judge his characters, but neither does he let them off the hook. #976 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

what i watched

A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1946). I have never seen a movie by Jean Renoir that I didn't like a lot, and of course, The Rules of the Game and Grand Illusion are among my favorite movies of all time. A first glance, A Day in the Country might seem like "minor" Renoir ... he intended it as a short to fit into an anthology film, but didn't finish it. It was finally released ten years later. But there is nothing minor about it. It plays like a warm up for Rules of the Game, and it demonstrates the usual Renoir touch for humanizing all characters without getting sappy about it. And the people connected with this one are a who's who in their own right. The story comes from Guy de Maupassant ... the female lead is played by Sylvia Bataille, a top actress who also spent many years with Jacques Lacan ... among the many assistant directors were Jacques Becker, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Yves Allégret, and Luchino Visconti (on a 40-minute movie!) ... the cinematographer was Jean's nephew, Claude ... and Jean's son Alain appears briefly (he grew up to be a professor at Cal, where I once was privileged to hear him tell a dirty joke). Can I get a whew!? All of this trivia shouldn't draw our attention away from how good A Day in the Country is. #125 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Code Unknown (Michael Haneke, 2000). One of the many recommendation systems I use suggested I watch In Vanya's Room, from the highly-regarded director Pedro Costa. But I had seen one of Costa's movies, Colossal Youth, and didn't like it much. And In Vanya's Room clocks in at 170 minutes. So I opted for Code Unknown. I had seen four films by Michael Haneke, and found all but one to be excellent (especially Caché and The White Ribbon), so it was a pretty easy choice. Haneke's movies are idiosyncratic, intense, and for some people, a little cold. Juliette Binoche helps warm things up with a fine performance. Haneke chops up his scenes ... each is usually just one take, and he uses blackouts to go from one scene to the next. It can be confusing, but it works in the context of a film about modern multicultural society, where we never seem to know the code. (Haneke has said that at the time he made the movie, Austria, where he was from, still mostly used door bells and intercoms, while in France where the filming took place, everyone typed in codes to gain access.) Always intriguing even when it confuses, and Binoche makes up for a lot. #757 on the TSPDT top 1000 list, #119 on the 21st Century list. In this early scene, several main characters cross paths:

what i watched last week

Both of the movies I watched were part of my Facebook Fave Fifty project, meaning the reviews are there. If you’d like to read what I thought of these films, and you aren’t already part of the FB group, let me know, in comments here or in an email, and I’ll add you to the group. To pique your interest, here are the selections so far. First, a recap of my own picks:

  • 45. The Lives of Others
  • 46. Evil Dead II
  • 47. My Family
  • 48. Sid and Nancy
  • 49. Tomorrow Never Dies
  • 50. Under Fire

Jeff Pike:

  • 45. Videodrome
  • 46. Last Tango in Paris
  • 47. Another Woman
  • 48. Marathon Man
  • 49. Close Encounters of the Third Kind
  • 50. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Phil Dellio:

  • 45. Smoke
  • 46. Il Posto
  • 47. Hud
  • 48. Nixon
  • 49. The Sugarland Express
  • 50. The Heartbreak Kid

Each of us are offering up two picks a week, so there’s a new post every day except Sundays. We also include a few brief comments about each film, 300-400 words or so. And there is a comments section, which is often the best part.

Meanwhile, once again, the movies I watched this week:

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006). #45 on my Facebook Fave Fifty. #34 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century, and #581 on the site’s list of the top 1000 films of all time.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007). #44 on my list, and #23 on the TSPDT list of the top 250 films of the 21st century.

what i watched last week

Monty Python's Life of Brian (Terry Jones, 1979.)

Little Women (Gillian Armstrong, 1994). The one with Winona Ryder. Not as sappy as it might have been.

A Night at the Opera (Sam Wood, 1935). Funnier than Life of Brian. Not as funny as Duck Soup.

WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008). Approaches greatness, but a bit sappier than it needed to be.

Bridge to Terabithia (Gábor Csupó, 2007). Doesn't approach greatness, but it has Zooey Deschanel, who always does.

4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Cristian Mungiu, 2007).

A Patch of Blue (Guy Green, 1965). I couldn't pay attention ... partly I was bored, partly I was tired.

4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days (cristian mungiu, 2007)

I was IMing with my nephew today, and he said something about how hard it is for him to watch movies that are 20+ years old, that is, made before he was born. He said he grew up in a time when movies tended to keep a fairly hectic pace, so when he watched older movies, they seemed slow to him and were hard to sit through.

He might have been talking about 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, even though this Romanian film is actually only a year old. At times, director Cristian Mungiu finds a place to put his camera that he thinks is appropriate for a scene, and he leaves it there for extended periods of time, letting the movie emerge from the stationary camera. At other times, the camera work flows nicely, but it's those long takes that are the most impressive, particularly a dinner scene where a young woman is invited to a family celebration. She sits in the middle of the show, all around her people talk and for the most part ignore her, she has some very important things on her mind that she can't talk about ... and the camera sits there, and the scene goes on and on and on. Actress Anamaria Marinca is terrific in this scene ... you can't take your eyes off of her, even as the other dinner guests jabber on ... but the truth is, she's terrific in every scene.

But I can only imagine that my nephew would want to pull his eyes out of their sockets about halfway through that scene, if he hadn't already.

The basic situation is that a young student in late-80s Romania needs an abortion, and asks her roommate for help. That doesn't really get it ... as one critic noted, she asks her friend to do everything except have the actual abortion. It sounds quite dreary in a Vera Drake kind of way, dreary and extremely depressing. But it's also brilliant. The director's touches draw our attention, but soon enough we realize they aren't there just to impress, but to serve the drama. And the matter-of-fact portrayal of Romania under Ceauşescu is both enlightening and frightening. We see how life could seem both mundane and difficult, how repression could be so complete that people worked their way around it the same way we might accept the existence of commute traffic.

Unlike my nephew, I tend to give my highest praise only to old movies. I'm not much for a literary canon, but when it comes to movies, it would appear that I believe in the old "stands the test of time" notion. I rarely give the top 10-out-of-10 rating to anything until I've seen it a billion times ... I've rated fewer than a dozen movies a "10" in the 21st century. But add 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days to that list.