BEYOND THE HILLS: Another Masterpiece From Cristian Mungiu
Beyond the Hills – ****
Beyond the Hills is, at its core, a film about two female friends and former lovers who are separated not literally by distance but rather the space that exists between those want to get away and those who want to stay. One, Sister Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), happens to be an Orthodox nun in a small Romanian village that she never left. The other, Alina (Cristina Flutur), is the nun’s old roommate from their traumatic days at an orphanage who ran off to Germany once old enough to flee. To the nun and the others at her monastery, Alina is a lost lamb, imbued with evil, upon her return to the village. It’s enough to drive Alina quite literally mad.
Still, Beyond the Hills is as much a critique of religion as director Cristian Mungiu’s last feature, the Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, was a critique of Communism. Instead, and in a fashion few directors could ever hope to mimic, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills is a complex film about simple lives controlled by strict institutions. And it’s equally a masterpiece.
The film opens with Sister Voichita picking Alina up at the train station, and upon their first embrace in what must have been years, Alina breaks down into tears. We don’t know that Voichita is a nun yet, but we slowly discover just how much old time religion she has accepted into her life.
Alina isn’t well from the start. She’s obviously in love with Voichita, but Voichita doesn’t outwardly reciprocate Alina’s feelings. Instead, she quotes monastery rules and asks Alina to accept God into her life. But rather than accept that Voichita has changed, Alina’s unrequited love turns into mad fits of jealousy. She presumes Voichita’s devotion is the result of a sexual relationship with the parish priest (Valeriu Andriuta). And the more Voichita talks of God, the more Alina believes it.
This drives an already unstable Alina over the edge. She starts punching and kicking the nuns and tries the throw herself down a well. She has fits and convulses with rage. The most obvious reason to the Orthodox nuns and priest for this is that Alina has evil inside her that needs removed. Exorcism, or the service as they simply call it, is the obvious answer.
It’s worth noting that the friends’ story and the exorcism performed here are based on a true life event that happened in Romania in 2005. Director Cristian Mungiu’s realist filmmaking wouldn’t have you believe otherwise. He’s a master of the art and Beyond the Hills only underscores just how spectacularly Mungiu can create a riveting work that slowly burns to its dramatic conclusion. There’s not an inch of fat on his films, with ever scene and ever shot important to the overall story and its characters. While you may not know where the film is going to take you, you certainly can’t look away.
It’s not possible for a work like this to remain engaging without Stratan’s performance, though. As the Orthodox nun chooses to let God rule her life rather than the abuses (and to Alina’s chagrin, the relationships) of her past, Stratan is on screen almost 100 percent of the time. Mungiu, a compositional virtuoso, often lets the camera linger on her, making her the center of all the action around her, not unlike what he did with Anamaria Marinca in 4 Month, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. This forces the viewer to enter Sister Voichita’s life in a way that wouldn’t be possible were it not for Stratan’s quiet command of the screen.
Both Stratan and Flutur shared a much deserved Best Actress prize at Cannes in 2012 for their work in this film. Mungiu, in turn, took home Best Screenplay. Still, all of these prizes don’t really express the full force at which the film hits you when you’ve barely realized it was going to.
Sure, Beyond the Hills may not be, as one reviewer put it, as fun as a film about a lesbian nun and her crazy ex should be. But unlike other film’s released in 2013 (cough, 12 Years a Slave, cough), this film never even wades into exploitation filmmaking waters. Mungiu wouldn’t ever have that. He’s in control of scene and character in a way few directors working today are. It’s a brilliant movie from a director who can now say he has two masterpieces to his name. And for any true cinephile, it’s a must see.