Film Review: Beyond the Hills

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Beyond the Hills | Directoy Cristian Mungiu | Score: 8.5

Filmgoers lucky enough to have seen the brilliant 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days might well have wondered about the film’s out-of-nowhere wunderkind Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu, and just how this man had come to make such a masterpiece with his first feature. They might also have wondered if Mungiu would be the kind of one-hit wonder that litter the cinematic landscape, or if they were witnessing the beginning of a dazzling new auteur.

Now, with the release of his second full-length feature, we can safely say it’s the latter. Many of the same sorts of elements that made his debut so striking are back in play: the long, seemingly languid scenes, impeccable composition, extraordinary performances from his actors and indelible emotional confrontations.

Also like his first film, the central relationship is between two dearly devoted female friends. Alina (Cristina Flutur) has just arrived back in Romania from Germany in order to reunite with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who has joined a simple Orthodox convent on the outskirts of a small city, a series of farmhouses without running water or electricity. The two women met as very young children marooned in an orphanage together and, we are too infer, were lovers. Alina has come back in order to take Voichita and head away together as might have been their shared plan some years ago, but Voichita, now finding peace and solace at the convent, is reluctant to leave, and has transferred her more physical love for Alina into a sort of deep maternal care.

Rough, anti-social and deeply resentful of the way the convent has changed her friend, Alina violently strikes out against the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and the other nuns with such fury, they fear she is inhabited by demons, which they eventually try to exorcise out of her with utterly damning results.

As careful and scrupulous as he is as a visual filmmaker, Mungiu is equally adroit with his screenplay. The film could have played as an anti-religious screed, yet another maverick running afoul of an all-powerful institution, Cool Hand Luke set in an Eastern European convent rather than a Florida prison, but Mungiu has a much different and more nuanced vision. He avoids that kind of big picture Hollywood deckstacking, and instead presents a much more complex and realistic story, in which everyone is slightly to blame and no one emerges with much solace.

For one thing, Alina, strong-willed and fierce as she is, is certainly no traditional heroine, not someone an audience can exactly root for. She’s there to steal away her lover by any means necessary, even over her lover’s own, perfectly legitimate, objections. Blunt, dull and myopic, it’s clear that all Alina has in her life is her relationship with Voichita, but that is at least somewhat by choice. As much love and encouragement as she receives at the convent and by her friend’s tender hand, she repels them entirely, and goes on fits of rampage, striking out against them, setting fires, deliberately undermining the basic tenets of their faith, in an effort to renounce the change in Voichita, who has found a place of meaning and hopefulness in her faith.

In other words, she’s deliberately hateful, even to her friend, cut off from any other emotion other than rage and obsessive desire. Voichita, for all her tender love and support of her troubled friend, never acknowledges the simple truth of their former relationship with any of her fellow nuns or the priest, who becomes increasingly embroiled in Alina’s psychic distress. Shamefully, she keeps that secret, even as it might have explained a great deal to the bewildered community of the convent.

And the simple faith behind the church itself, its blind devotion to ancient scriptures and practices, is also very much in Mungiu’s crosshairs. The sense of security and bliss the women feel based not so much on a widening of their emotional sensibilities but a closing down around them, blinding them to the ways of the world around them (at various points, Alina rails against Voichita to “talk normally” and not as some blissed out cult member).

Mungiu’s delicate virtuosity is best summed up in the seemingly simple way he shows us the inner workings of his characters’ psyches. Time and again, he uses long, unadorned long shots of people sitting around a dinner table, conversations swirling around, and keeps his cameras focused not on what anyone is saying, but on the faces of his protagonists, their every twitch and turn offering a direct connection to their state of mind. His is a subtle, richly rewarding aesthetic that yields a phenomenal amount of emotion and pain with the most understated and subtle of touches.

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Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success.  You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.

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