Strikingly shot and punishingly long, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills plays somewhat like a sequel to his 2007 feature 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes.
Like that film - which mapped an intricate, nuanced relationship between two college girls in 1987 Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu’s reign of fear and repression- Beyond the Hills could be read as an essay on female friendship and the dynamics and limits of loyalty.
Beyond the Hills is almost completely devoid of comic release (though if you are of a certain age and temperament you might find that the sight of a group of black clad nuns scuttling as a group across a windy courtyard a bit Monty Python-ish) and filmed in a superficially plain documentary style that reinforces the movie’s naturalism. Beyond the Hills isn’t quite a documentary - it employs actors to tell a story derived from two nonfiction novels by a BBC correspondent - but it feels brutally real and completely unlike any Hollywood project.
That’s good and bad. While I was completely absorbed by the film, I had the luxury of watching it over two nights. And though I understand that the languid pacing and long static shots are part of Mungiu’s aesthetic arsenal, I’m not convinced that he couldn’t have told this story more effectively in two-thirds the running time. The length suggests an inflated sense of the film’s importance, and opens it up to charges of pretentiousness. I think that it’s a shame that some people will be scared off by the 150-minute running time but I understand why they might be reluctant to commit to this viscerally powerful, ambitious movie about, among other things, the fallibility of good intentions and the lethal risks of religious certainty.
Alina (Cristina Flutur, a stage actor making her film debut) has returned to Romania from Germany, where she has found a job waitressing on a river boat. She wants to persuade Voichita (Cosmina Stratan, a former television reporter), her friend and lover from her old orphanage, to join her. Voichita has taken refuge in a remote Orthodox monastery among a dozen other nuns and has found a measure of peace there, living simply, without electricity or running water.
The monastery’s head priest (Valeriu Andriuta) is convinced that the secular lures of the West will be Voichita’s ruination. So she hesitates, and the worldly and willful Alina - who has nowhere else to go - takes up residence in Voichita’s cell. Realizing that she’s to be denied Voichita’s company, Alina suffers a breakdown, which leads to a brief stay in a hospital before being returned to the monastery to recuperate.
There she becomes increasing hostile and transgressive, eventually becoming so combative that the sisters decide to restrain her. From there it’s a short journey to the decision that she has been possessed by “the Evil One.”
What follows could be described as one of the least sensational yet most frightening exorcism scenes ever committed to film.
But this is not a story of good and evil, for none of the characters here have any malevolent intent. Alina is no innocent, but she is on a rescue mission, determined to expose her friend to a richer life beyond the cloister. Voichita is clearly torn between the life of solace she has found and her love for Alina. Even the head priest - said to be in his 30s but looking much older - is trying to do what he perceives as the right thing. He is genuinely concerned for Alina’s soul.
While the film is at times excruciatingly slow and therefore emblematic of the rustic existence of the nuns, modernity intrudes in the final half-hour; while you might think the story is over, it’s really just deepening. So be prepared to stay to the end.
Beyond the Hills 88 Cast: Cristina Flutur, Cosmina Stratan, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalag Tapalaga Director: Cristian Mungiu Rated: Not rated Running time: 150 minutes In Romanian with English subtitles
MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 04/19/2013
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