Beyond the Hills: Highlight from Romania

The Romanian New Wave continues to astonish as Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu follows his startling, intense abortion 2007 drama “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” with the harrowing and emotionally devastating “Beyond the Hills.”

“Beyond the Hills” is one of the strongest films in the main competition at the 2012 Cannes Film Fest.

Made in collaboration with the two-time Palme d’Or winning Dardenne Brothers (“The Child,” “The Kid with a Bike”), the new work is an exacting and rigorous Bressonian study of damaged faith and deliverance composed in a stripped down, direct style that renders a tactile immediacy and emotional depth.

The new work echoes and deepens many of the themes and ideas of the searing “Four Months.“ That movie explored the moral rot and blinding legacy of a dictatorship. The new film is about another brand of institutional totalitarianism, the restrictive and intolerant practices of the Orthodox church.

Mungiu’s script, influenced by two nonfiction novels of former BBC producer Tatiana Niculescu Bran, is also inspired by actual events. Like his previous work, Mungiu’s new film turns on the complicated and emotionally intricate relationship of two women.

Alina (Cristina Flutur) has returned from Germany to the dank 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 abject Stalinist conditions of the Ceausescu regime.

Alina’s sojourn in the West has granted her some economic independence and provided incentive to escape her bleak origins, qualities she is desperate to pass onto her friend. Voichita has gone the opposite path, seeking comfort and emotional sanctuary as a novice in the rigorous Orthodox monastery overseen by a kind of monastic supreme leader, the priest (Valeriu Andriuta).

It is clear the needy, almost discomforting Alina remains fixated, especially sexually, on Voichita. “I love you, but not like before,” the suddenly chaste Voichita replies. The drama increasingly plays out the clash between the two figures warring over possession of Voichita, the indomitable priest for whom she carries an almost paternal devotion and the fragile interloper she remains linked with.

The monastery, without electrify or modernist trappings, is governed by a medieval despair outlined by the severity of the landscapes and the stark and forbidding architecture. Naturally suspicious of Alina, the priest decries the moral bankruptcy of the West and justifies his unbending orthodoxy and unbending beliefs. Even, he says, a believer who enters a non-Orthodox church has committed a grave sin.

Shot by the incomparable cinematographer Oleg Mutu in widescreen, the movie’s almost hyper naturalism is further heightened by the incredibly photorealistic imagery yielded by the digital photography. Every act, no matter how insignificant, appears endowed with a intense physicality. Mungiu is particularly drawn to faces and gestures, Voichita’s dark, open features indicating her own submission; by contrast, Alina’s jumpy, nervous aggression signals her rebellion and denial.

Alina is initially buoyed at the prospect of Voichita leaving the church and accompanying her return to Germany after she applies for a travel visa, the first of several uncomfortable encounters with state authorities and bureaucratic officials. Inevitably, those plans are scuttled and Alina slowly and irrevocably falls apart, necessitating her hospitalization.

Failing to convince Voichita to break from the church though also refusing to give up her deep attachment to her, Alina subordinates herself to the dictates of the church. She also proves wily and industrious as her provocative and steely individuality undermines the authority and privilege of the priest. It produces one of the film’s most riveting sequences as a cluster of nuns form around her, reading and cajoling her on the commission of her sins and her need to absolve.

“Beyond the Hills” becomes a fascinating 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, even acts of arson and supposed 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.

The movie is also a foundation work that in its moral inquiries, seriousness and need to pose valid and necessary questions about what it means to be free and alive in the present world makes it a natural successor, artistically and politically, to such indispensable works of the New Wave as “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “Aurora,” “Police, Adjective” and Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.”

The movie is undoubtedly uncomfortable in its implications and the wholly different brutality it brilliantly illustrates. “I’d rather go to hell than have you pray for me,” a secular doctor asserts at the end. The work is not in any manner easy, fun or enjoyable in the strictest sense. At 155 minutes, it is long though rewarding, painful though by its remarkable closing passage absolutely necessary.