Romanian director Cristian Mungiu is one of international cinema’s truly revered auteurs. He first made waves in 2007 with the release of his brilliant 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a nightmarish odyssey involving a young woman trying to help her friend get an illegal abortion in 1980s Bucharest, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Mungiu returned to Cannes in 2012 to premiere the engrossing Beyond the Hills, a film about a pair of estranged former lovers from the same orphanage who meet again at a convent, with devastating consequences. This, too, was a sensation at the festival, winning Best Actress awards for both its female leads and the Best Screenplay trophy for Mungiu. Along with fellow Romanian directors (and Cannes favorites) Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest) and Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu), Mungiu has played a key role in drawing attention to the burgeoning Romanian cinema scene, which is now big enough to warrant its own series of dedicated film festivals and events in the United States.
Part of the critical adulation for Mungiu celebrates his scintillating visual storytelling, a spare, vérité style that nonetheless features some signature flourishes, such as populating his frame with numerous characters and details that claim your attention simultaneously. He also has a Coen brothers–like penchant for filming dialogue largely through reaction shots, rather than focusing solely on the speaker. The result is thoroughly beguiling but also pleasingly humble, largely in service of his characters and their story, rather than just drawing attention to his powerful visual acumen.
Mungiu, who turns 49 at the end of April, premiered his latest film, Graduation, at Cannes last year, earning him the Best Director prize and more critical acclaim. The film stars Adrian Titieni as a well-connected Romanian doctor whose hopes for his high-achieving daughter (Maria-Victoria Drāgus) are endangered when a chance violent encounter leaves her badly shaken and unable to concentrate on her all-important final exams. Taking matters into his own hands, the doctor leans on his high-profile acquaintances to grease the wheels for her by ensuring she’ll receive high grades, only to deeply regret doing so later on.
Graduation is the latest example of Mungiu’s brilliantly intricate methodology: a work that can be viewed as a treatise on the nature of graft and corruption in human politics, but through the prism of a much smaller and more nuanced story, whose rich characters are anything but didactic (all apologies, Richard Brody).
The film is now playing in limited release in the US. But I sat down with its charmingly unassuming director in Toronto last September, when his film was making its North American debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. Over the course of our winding conversation, Mungiu spoke about the decisions that helped establish his particular style, the nature of ethical compromise, and how he responds to being called one of the champions of Romanian cinema.
The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
After Graduation screened at TIFF in 2016, you mentioned that the film was about many things but specifically not Romania. Could you elaborate on that? Had people been assuming it was an analogy for your home country?
I'm not saying the film isn’t about Romania; I'm saying it is not only about Romania. First of all, the most important theme in the film is corruption, and not compromise. I make this distinction: I think corruption is a social thing, while compromise is just a personal decision that you make to solve things easier, even if you know this is not precisely ethical.
I think the film is much more about human nature, in a way, and about decision-making, and about aging, and about parenting, and the difficulty of knowing what's best for your child, all of these things. For me, it's much more complex than social criticism about Romania. What happens in the film could happen in a lot of places, the general themes about family, aging, and responsibility, and the feeling of reaching that age when you feel a bit disappointed about your life.
As far as graft goes, it doesn’t seem to vary all that much from country to country. It’s sadly a universal truth of humanity.
I was thinking when I started the film, when would be the moment in your life when you make the first compromise? It’s good for everybody to have this kind of examination from time to time, because it's then when you start losing the strength to fight against things you consider not to be completely correct and ethical, because you feel that you're already guilty about something. I really wanted to make this story about a father who realizes that there's nothing much you can do once you've started on this path. The only thing you can do is try to postpone as much as possible this very first compromise for your child.
In Graduation, as always, you have a way of putting your characters in difficult moral quandaries, which leaves the audience a bit unsure of how to respond.
There's always ambiguity in life. There's always complexity. I'm always trying to portray this kind of complex situation without judging the characters, without having any comment of my own. At the same time, I'm not necessarily trying to make the characters solve these kinds of moral issues. I think this is where cinema can be useful, to show the complexity of life without comment. I don't feel my opinion would be more valuable than the opinion of the spectators watching the film. That's not important.
What's important is that I bring in front of them something that looks [more] closely at their lives than what mainstream cinema would do. Cinema was not invented 100-something years ago only to entertain people. While that's part of it — it can be fun to laugh and feel good watching a film — we should preserve the diversity to filmmaking, and make films for people who want to think. Cinema has this very strange [position], belonging both to art and to industry. If it still belongs to art, we need to understand what's specific about cinema: Art is specific.
This is why I keep on making films like this, because I discovered there's something connected with the way time passes, and there's something connected with the capacity that cinema has to reveal a reality in this continuum of time. This is why I decided to try and make films inspired by the reality in my life. I work in a complicated way, to explore the inner feelings of the characters and whatever they think about, but to do this without using music and editing, just [using] very, very long takes. Shooting each scene in just one take, one shot actually, which is very complicated, speaks a lot about the philosophy behind it.
Among other very effective tools, you often employ a densely populated frame, filled with different characters all reacting to one another at once. The viewer’s eyes are forced to dart around the frame, because different people are reacting to what’s being said by someone else.
It all comes from the decision to try and stage everything so that it can be captured in a single shot. You learn how to use two things: the depth of field, and the movement of the camera. Another rule I set for myself is that I will never move the camera unless this movement is triggered by a movement in the shot.
With these two rules imposed, now [we have to] figure it out. You're there on set; how will you do it? It's much more complicated to stage the situation like this — it needs to look familiar, but not staged. You need to find the only position of the camera that’s right. Normally there's one position better than all the others, and there's only one way of placing it there. I spend some time just mumbling around the set, walking by myself in that space for a half day, thinking. “If I do it like this, how will this happen?”
This is before the shooting. If I enter not knowing how I'm going to shoot, it's going to be a disaster. Before the shoot, we do a technical scout. I've been through all the places already, and I go there with the whole crew, and for two or three days we visit all the sets and I tell them precisely what I want to do. We stage it the way we plan, and we have a space for everybody, and we understand everything.
I learned this working on 4 Months, that no matter how skilled you are, some things won't fit into the frame. You have to learn this. That was very helpful shooting the dinner table scene [in 4 Months], probably the most famous scene I've ever shot. That scene was the result of one choice, of understanding that you need to let go of something to be focused on what's more important. This was an important discovery, a big step forward, in my career: Just be simple and focus on what's important. If you work like this, there is a philosophy behind it as well. At the end, for the audience, the world of the film should be bigger than what they watched on the screen.
This is how you learn to use off-camera sound a lot. Shooting 4 Months, I was having a problem I couldn't solve. In the scene, one of the characters was lying on her back in the bed and the other one was facing her from a distance, because I couldn't imagine that after what had just happened they would be sitting next to one another. They felt separated, but there was no way of shooting both of them [together]. Then I made this decision: I would just shoot one of them. This was the only thing I could do.
I discovered a lot of things doing that film, and especially that you need to make choices, and you need to be bold enough to challenge all the decisions that you make as a filmmaker.
I’ve noticed in your films that when there’s a conversation between two people, you often focus not on the speaker but the listener, so we really feel their responses.
Which is also important because sometimes what's interesting in the film is not what is said, but the effect of what is said on someone else. People ask me, "Why in 4 Months is the other girl the protagonist?" Because the protagonist is mostly the person who learns and understands a little bit from what happens, not the person who suffers, even though she's in the center of the action.
For [Graduation] as well, I was [wondering] from whose perspective am I going to tell the story? This is also a choice I had to make when I decided to do this kind of realistic cinema: I follow one character’s individual perspective. Unless the situation is connected with something that the character knows, I cannot have it in the film.
After your repeated success at Cannes, you became one of the most venerated directors in Europe, helping to bring Romanian cinema to the world’s notice. I know you are far from alone, as there are a great many other talented filmmakers from your country, but nonetheless, it still feels like a great burden to be saddled with. Is this weight something you have to contend with, or do you simply make your films and leave the rest to the critics?
It's correct to say that this is not a precise [statement]. It's not only me. It's a group of people. I was just fortunate enough to become visible because I got the Palme d’Or, but it's more or less a generation of people the same age who started making a very different kind of cinema in the same period, and started getting attention from the Cannes festival. It's a collective merit.
At the same time, your question is about the burden I feel, and there is a burden. There is a burden of expectations about what I do, but this is very personal. I think every other filmmaker experiences this: People expect that you will do a better thing than last time, something fresh, that reinvents the language of cinema, and it will be original, and so on. It's not easy to do this. Sometimes you have already discovered all the things you could discover in your life as a filmmaker, but you have to keep on going. I don't know. I'm not smarter than 10 years ago, to be honest. I haven't discovered anything new.
I do try to [respond] to this responsibility that I feel, especially at home [in Romania]. At home, I'm always responsible about shaping the way in which our cinema is financed and organized, so that the people coming after us have the same kind of chances that we had. We had a small chance at some point, and after that we really acted to set the rules and regulations because we had the chance to make a very free and independent cinema. I hope with our help, the next generation will have [the same] chance that we had.
My favorite shot in Graduation is one where the doctor comes home and walks into the kitchen where his wife is sitting, smoking and looking off camera. He goes to the foreground to cut an apple, and she sits resolutely in the background. No words are spoken, we never actually see his face, but that scene tells us all we really need to know about them, doesn’t it?
Are you married?
It's safe to ask this. When I was shooting the scene, people were asking me, “What's the meaning of this, why are we shooting this?” I said, "Look, let's just shoot it, and you will figure it out later." Not like later in the editing, but later, when you reach 50. Just shoot it now. Mind your own life, and you will see this later on. You'll know this is it.