A Romanian director who exploded onto the scene five years ago by capturing the Cannes Film Festival's top prize pleaded with critics Saturday to go easy on his latest contender.
Cristian Mungiu, who stunned the cinema world with his Palme d'Or win for the chilling Communist-era abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days", is back in the running with the true story of a deadly "exorcism".
The hotly awaited picture "Beyond the Hills", like its much-loved predecessor, looks at two young women bound by an intimate friendship who try to navigate in a hostile world with each other's support.
But the similarities stop there and Mungiu, 44, begged reviewers from around the world not to compare his new tragedy with "4 Months", at a press conference after a screening that met with a split chorus of boos and applause.
"It's best for this film if people will manage to see the film so I hope journalists will manage to appreciate it as an independent film... without comparing it to anything else and especially (not) to my previous film," he said.
"Beyond the Hills" is based on a horrific 2005 case in which a young woman, Irina Cornici, died after an Orthodox Church session in the remote Tanacu monastery of eastern Romania to rid her of purported demons.
In the film, co-produced by the Belgian two-time Cannes winners the Dardenne brothers, Cornici is renamed Alina and grows up with her best friend Voichita in the notoriously grim orphanages set up by dictator Nicolae Ceausescu.
The picture charts the diverging paths of the two women as young adults, with Voichita choosing God and becoming a nun while Alina seeks a fresh start in Germany.
But her experience in the West proves traumatic -- Mungiu hints at sex trafficking -- and Alina returns home to find her friend at the monastery and tries to convince Voichita to leave with her.
Voichita, however, asks her to stay and while at Tanacu, Alina suffers bouts of schizophrenia and violently lashes out at the priest and nuns, who take her to a local hospital for treatment.
The chief doctor quickly releases Alina back into the monastery's care and a visit to her foster parents turns sour, as she is let down yet again by those meant to help her.
Back at Tanacu, the priest and nuns become convinced that Alina is possessed by the devil and attempt to "save" her by gagging her and binding her to pieces of wood nailed together in the form of a cross.
She is held for several days and forced to fast while the priest orders the reading of prayers used in the Orthodox Church to expel the devil.
Emergency services are called in when she faints after the ceremony and Alina is declared dead a few hours later.
The priest and nuns were jailed in 2007 for manslaughter over Cornici's death.
Mungiu said that while it was clear that the young woman was a victim, he was most interested in what people did in the name of love and good intentions, and acknowledged that his non-judgemental approach could alienate viewers.
"I don't want the film to be liked. I hope the film will challenge people to have an opinion and I am very sure that the film is going to be seen very differently here and in Romania," he said.
Mungiu, the most prominent example of the so-called Romanian new wave in cinema, lamented the state of his country's film industry, saying his compatriots were being raised on Hollywood schlock and that the love of independent pictures was being "lost".
"The problems that we're having are not financial," he said.
"The problems that we're having (are) that the cinema which is very much appreciated here for being radical and pure and going for the answers -- it's not popular back home."
"Beyond the Hills" is competing against 21 other pictures for the top prize at Cannes, to be awarded on May 27.