Riveting, intelligent and a masterclass in acting, “Beyond the Hills” is likely to be the best film you’ll see this spring or maybe even this year.
Written and directed by distinguished filmmaker Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”), this Romanian drama examines the tensions that arise between two young women: one who lives in an isolated Orthodox convent in Romania; the other who comes to visit her, in hopes that they’ll return to Germany together.
Based on the nonfiction novels by Tatiana Niculescu, “Beyond the Hills” was shortlisted for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and won awards at the Cannes Film Festival for Best Screenplay (Mungiu) and Best Actress (shared by stars Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan).
The East Valley Tribune recently caught up with Flutur to discuss the film, which opens Friday, April 5, at Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale.
Q: To begin with, I understand that you primarily worked in theater before this film. Were you intimidated, in any way, tackling such a demanding role in your first feature and how did you overcome this initial nervousness?
A: I was truly nervous at the beginning indeed, but we started shooting very soon after the casting and I simply jumped into the story trusting Cristian and my intuition. There was no other way. From the beginning of the movie you need to find the right note, like in a symphony, so I had to find ways of connecting to Alina and the story very fast. And I was quickly absorbed into the situations of the film that I simply didn't pay any attention to any nervousness anymore. It all came quite natural and being in front of the camera felt really normal.
Q: Could you tell me about how you got cast in “Beyond the Hills” and what appealed to you most about this project or this character?
A: The casting director of the film had shot a picture of me some years ago at a theatre festival in Bucharest. Cristian saw this picture and wanted to see me. So I got a phone call to come to the audition and after about 3 auditions he called me to say I got the part. The script was very well written and contained meaningful messages for the world – it wasn't anything shallow or commercial. Cristian was one of my favorite film directors and the character had a complexity and an intensity that I fell in love with in an instant. It was big challenge on all levels.
Q: How would you describe your experience working with Cristian? With Cosmina?
A: Working with Cristian was very special. We didn't need many words to communicate. We were both on the same wavelength and I was easily feeling what he wanted from me as Alina and what the direction was. He was my friend, I didn't feel him as a director, I didn't feel directed...It was a continuous calm and friendly collaboration, and we were creating together, having the sensation that we have all the time in the world for our quests, although it was not true.
When Cosmina and I found out we would be in the film we could hardly believe it. We were so happy. And even if we were very nervous, we both entered the project with big enthusiasm and put a lot of passion in it, having the same goal. From the beginning I felt that not talking about our characters or the scenes was better, so each of us was preparing for the next day on her own and we were meeting on the set eager to see what we would discover.
Q: I read that Cristian actually told you and Cosmina not to do too much research or analysis before shooting the film, but essentially just to go with your gut when entering a scene. Could you elaborate some on that, and were there any characteristics from your own life that you brought to Alina?
A: He doesn't believe much in this kind of rational research and gathering information. He is more keen on feeling and jumping into the situation as it is, using more intuition and instinct. What he didn't want was that we relied on the true story and looked for information there, since we decided from the beginning that the basis of all our work would be the script and not the true events. He wanted us to have the senses fresh and not get overloaded with information and dry analysis, which I totally understand and agree with. In my opinion, research is also helpful and vital. As long as it doesn't suffocate your intuition and ability to feel and you incorporate the information into your cells, not keep it into your brain.
And about my character...When I read the script I knew Alina was very far away from me, but I liked that and I considered this distance a big challenge for me as an actress. I felt I understood her perfectly and I did not judge her for any weird behavior. But to tell the truth I don't know exactly how this happens that at some point you get so connected with a character – another human being – that you start feeling her emotions and it all seems real. It is pure mystery for me. I didn't consciously put issues from my life into it, but after all you never know what you wake up inside of you when you enter a character's universe. You take the risk and need to get ready to deal with any new discovery about yourself.
Q: I was on edge the entire film and often felt exhausted by what was happening on screen, particularly during Alina’s violent yet heartbreaking outbursts with the nuns. What was the atmosphere like on set shooting these more chaotic scenes? Did you leave feeling emotionally or physically drained at the end of each day?
A: Yes, sometimes it felt this way because in these kind of scenes you can only let the violence pass through you. And we didn't have any stunts. So for Alina's sake, I had to find inside the emotional and physical strength to deal with the outbursts in a more real way – all with measure – which was indeed very consuming. But Cristian warned me about this from the start. I knew when I said ‘yes’ that my character wouldn't be very comfortable and easy and she would ask a lot from me.
Q: Are you still primarily doing theater or do you have any upcoming film projects that you can discuss? What are you looking for in future roles?
A: I am doing both and I am open to new interesting projects both in theatre and in film anywhere in the world. They are quite different as means of expression, but the quest of the character is pretty similar for me and this quest is something I am very fond of. As for the characters I like, I never put any limitations as long as they are complex and profound, intriguing and giving me beautiful and generous opportunities to explore.
Q: To wrap things up, are there any films that you’ve seen recently that you’ve especially enjoyed or would recommend?
A: Yes, actually, I have recently seen a film by the Dardenne brothers, “Le gamin au vélo” (“The Kid with a Bike”), and I liked it a lot. I would recommend it if you have a chance to see it.