Saturday, April 20, 2013

Beyond the Hills

Grade: 83/A-

Fans of Romanian director Cristian Mungiu have waited five long years for the return of one of Europe’s most talented filmmakers, but they have not waited in vain. Mungiu’s Palme D’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, about two women seeking a black market abortion in communist Romania, was an almost unbearably intense realist masterpiece. Now, Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills takes another look at turmoil in a repressive environment in what’s an early contender for being one of the year’s best films.

Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is a young woman who has recently taken vows as a nun in an Orthodox convent in Romania. Alina (Cristina Flutur), an old friend from the orphanage she grew up in, has just arrived from Germany. The two young women had a relationship in the past which Alina would like to restart, but Voichita remains faithful to her vows. Depressed, Alina’s behavior grows more and more erratic. Gradually, the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and nuns come to the conclusion that Alina has been possessed by a demon, and that they must perform an exorcism, but their actions will take a terrible toll on Alina’s mental and physical health.

As with 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, Mungiu proves himself to be a master of stillness. Every long dinner-table scene in masterful in its framing, contrasting the religious group’s piousness, Alina’s mixture of bile and sorrow, and Voichita’s confliction. Mungiu is particularly gifted when showcasing moments of unpredictable, jarring movement within the stillness, as with a scene of fish being dumped into a sink; Alina confronting the priest about the legend of a mystical idol in his altar; and any scene where Alina has to be held or tied down, often writhing against bodies with unbelievable fury. It doesn’t hurt that Mungiu has again found two wonderful amateur actresses in the soulful, calm Stratan and the volatile Flutur.

As with his earlier film, Mungiu is getting at the truth of repression’s effect on humanity. True, Alina’s behavior often endangers either others or herself, but much of that comes from the dominating presence of the priest (well played by Andriuta), a creepy patriarchal figure referred to by the nuns as “daddy” who determines what is proper or improper for women. That soul-eroding effect extends to Voichita, whose implied feelings of self-loathing for her homosexuality is borne of the oppressive nature of the fanatical religious. When Alina’s mental and emotional health plummets, it is the group’s ignorance and superstition that ultimately leads to tragedy, not the presence of a supernatural force.

Even so, there’s a certain amount of balance here, as the secular forces who later condemn the religious are even less inclined to help Alina. Beyond the Hills is sometimes a trying film, long (145 mins), furious, and designed to make viewers with even a modicum of impatience to scream out “just hurry up, already!”. But it’s also a deeply moving film, one about people torn between the hopes of their faith and the harsh realities of the secular world, all bound to lose their innocence.

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