Film Review: Beyond the Hills

Unrequited love leads to exorcism in this latest offering from the Romanian New Wave.

As he did in his universally acclaimed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, so Cristian Mungiu does in Beyond the Hills, unfolding another tale of two young women caught up in a life-and-death situation that, contingent upon choices the characters freely make, nevertheless seems predestined.

The earlier film, set in Bucharest in the 1980s, involved an illegal abortion. The latest, based on an actual incident that occurred in 2005, concerns an ill-conceived exorcism. In both cases, the women are best friends with distinct personalities, so much so that they seem estranged not only from each other but also from their societies, an anonymous urban quarter in 4 Months, a claustrophobic rural retreat in Beyond the Hills. They exercise free will and make moral decisions, yet hardly seem responsible for the consequences of their actions, let alone for the events that overtake them. Notions of right and wrong, good and evil, conflate and distort into recrimination and ennui.

Alumnae of an orphanage in a forgotten burg in the Romanian hills, Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) have taken different paths since outgrowing their welcome in the institution. Headstrong and self-reliant, Alina moved to Germany to start her life anew; shy and compliant, Voichita found solace and structure inside a nearby Orthodox convent. But Alina cannot forget Voichita, her first love, and has returned home to convince her to join her in Germany. She did not anticipate, and cannot accept, Voichita’s Christian conversion, which Alina suspects, with some validity, owes more to routine than to religiosity. Voichita, conversely, no longer welcomes Alina’s sexual attentions, although she continues to profess her platonic love.

In a pique of frustration and jealousy, Alina throws a tantrum, which escalates into a kind of seizure, in the convent’s chapel, attacking the priest (Valeriu Andriuță), whom she accuses of sexual abuse. Voichita and her fellow nuns restrain her, foreshadowing more elaborate bondage to come, but doctors at the antiquated and overcrowded hospital refuse Alina treatment, returning her to the convent where, they rationalize, she will get better care. Treating bipolar disorder with prayer and tough love isn’t efficacious, however, and good intentions, no matter how heartfelt, have unintended consequences.

Beyond the Hills isn’t a screed against superstition, although Mungiu certainly examines events, as he did in 4 Months, knowing that the children of men are ever ready to exploit human frailty. If anything, the director, who wrote the script based on the “nonfiction novels” of former BBC correspondent Tatiana Niculescu Bran, seems overly sympathetic to the contrite nuns seeking comfort in a cloistered world, and to the priest who struggles, ineffectually, to do the right thing, in the context of his faith, to be sure. Who can say what is sin and what is psychosis, Mungiu seems to ask, when hearts and souls remain opaque?

On the other hand, as Mungiu himself has put it, indifference is a greater sin than intolerance. The appeal of Romanian New Wave directors—Cristi Puiu (The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu), Corneliu Porumboiu (12:08 East of Bucharest), Radu Muntean (Tuesday, After Christmas)—lies in their not-so-subtle satire of a society inured to injury and insult, to the insolence of bureaucrats and functionaries, to the alienation of feeling that comes with the loss of agency, purpose and opportunity. In their films’ fatalistic worlds, people make plans for dinner while others lie dying before them, ignoring the obvious except to locate blame elsewhere, retreating to whatever hermetic asylum affords them escape.

Fraught with anxiety and callousness, Beyond the Hills can be hard to watch, although the severe sets (by Călin Papură and Mihaela Poenaru), adumbral cinematography (by Oleg Mutu) and wintry landscapes lend stark poetry to the proceedings. Mungiu uses ambient sound like a metronome, the maddening barking dog, clanging church bells, unsettling winds serving as an ominous score. He is deliberate—at 150 minutes, the narrative at times stalls—but he startles as well. Audiences will remember the black-clocked bevy of nuns bearing their cross-bound burden through the driven snow, plodding not toward salvation but to ruin.