Cristian Mungiu, the gifted Romanian director who won the Cannes Fest’s top award, the Palme d’Or, for the intense abortion 2007 drama “4 Months, “3 Weeks and 2 Days,” has made another thematically harrowing and emotionally gripping film, “Beyond the Hills.”
Made in collaboration with the two-time Palme d’Or winning Dardenne Brothers (“The Child,” “The Kid with a Bike”), the new work is a rich, rigorous chronicle of love and free will, damaged faith and deliverance, conveyed in a modest, direct style that elevates the immediacy and relevancy of the film’s issues.
“Beyond the Hills” is a logical continuation of some of the themes and ideas of the searing “Four Months.“ That movie explored the moral rot and blinding legacy of dictatorship, as they affect the everyday life of innocent citizens. The new film is about another kind of institutional totalitarianism, the rigid and intolerant practices of the Orthodox church.
Mungiu’s script, which credits by two nonfiction novels of former BBC producer Tatiana Niculescu Bran, is also inspired by factual events that the director has followed for years. (See Interview).
Like his previous work, “Beyond the Hills” depict in depth the complex emotionally intricate relationship of two women. Alina (Cristina Flutur) has returned from Germany to a small and remote Romanian village where she grew up with her closet friend, Voichita (Cosmita Stratan). Rejected by their birth parents, the two grew up in an orphanage, another cruel reminder of the authoritarian dictates of the Ceausescu regime.
Alina’s Westtern experience has granted her some economic independence and provided a route to escape her bleak origins, and she is now hoping that her friend would also be liberated from her suffocating surroundings. But, alas, Voichita has gone the opposite path, seeking comfort and emotional sanctuary as a novice in the rigorous Orthodox monastery, supervised by a priest (Valeriu Andriuta).
The needy, Alina continues to be fixated, especially sexually, on Voichita. “I love you, but not like before,” the suddenly chaste Voichita replies. The drama increasingly plays out a battle of wills, a clash between two figures warring over the possession of Voichita. As individual and forces, they could not have been more different. The indomitable priest, for whom she carries a loyal paternal devotion, is contrasted with the fragile and sensitive interloper she remains linked with.
The monastery, which operates under shabby conditions–without electrify or modernist trappings–is governed by sort of an archaic, even medieval despair. The ambience of the site is echoed by the severity of the surrounding landscapes and the stark and forbidding architecture.
Suspicious of Alina, the priest decries what he describes as the Western world’s moral bankruptcy, which offers justification foir his unbending and intolerant orthodoxy and unbending beliefs. The extremity of his position is reflected by his claim that a believer who enters a non-Orthodox church has committed a grave sin.
The movie is long—two and a half hour—and the pacing deliberate, but it has tremendous impact, a result of accumulation of details in the narrative, characterization, and tone.
Shot by the cinematographer Oleg Mutu in widescreen, the movie’s almost hyper naturalism is further heightened by the incredibly realistic imagery yielded by the digital photography. Every act, no matter how seemingly minor or insignificant in terms of the plot, is imbued with intense physicality.
As in his previous work, Mungiu is particularly drawn to faces and gestures, Voichita’s dark, open features indicating her own submission, By contrast, Alina’s nervous aggression signals her rebellion and denial.
Alina is initially buoyed at the prospect of Voichita leaving the church. Accompanying her return to Germany, she applies for a travel visa, which is the first of several uncomfortable encounters with state authorities and bureaucratic officials.
Inevitably, and I am not revealing too much, those plans are scuttled and Alina slowly and irrevocably falls apart, which leads to her hospitalization.
Failing to convince Voichita to break from the church, while also refusing to give up her deep attachment to her, Alina subordinates herself to the dogmatic dictates of the church. She also proves wily and industrious as her provocative and steely individuality undermines the priest’s authority and privileged status.
In one of the film’s many riveting sequences, we see a clique of nuns form around her, reading and cajoling her on the commission of her sins and her need to absolve.
Gradually, “Beyond the Hills” becomes a provocative and haunting meditation on warring ideologies, the liberator subtly ridiculing and rejecting the absurdity of the church’s faith and practices. Alina’s noncompliance takes several striking acts of willful disobedience, to the extremis of acts of arson and suicide attempts.
Alina’s dissident actions come at a horrifying price. The movie’s extraordinary final 45 minutes are brutish, disquieting and absolutely devastating at documenting the consequences of her intransigence.
On a broader, more philosophical level, “Beyond the Hills” raises moral inquiries and valid existential questions about what it really means to be free and alive, not to mention fulfilled, in our turbulent present world.
The movie is harsh and disquieting in its implications and the different acts of brutality it illustrates and then condemns. “I’d rather go to hell than have you pray for me,” a secular doctor asserts at the end.
“Beyond the Hills” is not an easy or comforting viewing, and as noted, with a running time of 150 minutes, it makes demands on the viewers, but ultimately it is rewarding, and the remarkably uncompromising closure is as painful as it logical and necessary.