Both boos and applause greeted Cristian Mungiu's latest film at Cannes _ and that's fine with him.
The Romanian director won the film festival's top prize in 2007 with abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," but he's had a more mixed reception this time around.
"Beyond the Hills," in which love and faith collide with fateful inevitability, was inspired by the true 2005 case of a young woman who died during an attempted exorcism at a remote monastery.
Some Cannes viewers failed to warm to the 2 1/2-hour film's wintry setting and deliberate pace, or wished for more overt condemnation of religious dogma. By contrast in Romania, the director said, it was hard to make the film because of the power of the Orthodox Church.
But Mungiu says it's "a very good thing" if the film polarizes audiences.
"Films are not meant to generate a unanimous reaction," Mungiu told reporters ahead of the film's red-carpet gala on Saturday. The festival runs through May 27. "I don't want the film to be liked. I hope the film will challenge people to have an opinion."
The film focuses on feisty but fragile Alina (Cristina Flutur), who has returned from Germany to visit childhood friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). The pair were once intimate, but now Voichita has joined a strict religious community with a severe view of sin.
Alina enters into a life-threatening battle of wills with a charismatic priest and a band of devout nuns, but Mungiu says he did not set out to knock religion. He is more interested in the forces that brought the characters to the crisis that unfolds on-screen.
Two decades after the fall of communism, the film shows a Romania still struggling to build up strong social institutions. Police, government officials and doctors all appear in the film _ all equally ineffectual.
"All the films that I do are finally about society, or how the society behind influences the choices of the main characters," Mungiu said.
The two central characters grew up in one of the notorious orphanages set up under dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, and Mungiu said that as well as exploring "different kinds of love and what people do in the name of love," the film is also about abandonment.
"People who are really responsible for what happened in the lives of these girls are not present in the film," he said. "They are the result of an education that started from the age of two or three or even younger. The kind of choices that were in front of (them) the day they left this kind of state school were very limited.
"So the film does not try to identify the guilty parties from among the characters you see on the film."
Mungiu insists that "Beyond the Hills" is a departure from the gritty "4 Months," but the new film retains a focus on the relationship between two women in conflict with more powerful men.
It also keeps the director's distinctive style of long takes, painterly compositions and minimal music. Mungiu's filmmaking is the antithesis of flashy _ a deliberate choice, he says.
"Things happen in front of you and you will decide what is important," Mungiu said. "For me it in the end is a matter of respect for the spectators."
Jill Lawless can be reached at: http://Twitter.com/JillLawless