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Beyond the Hills (Cristian Mungiu, 2012)

July 9, 2013

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The following review was written as what was intended to be my last submission to Subtitled Online. I was sent a screener by Artificial Eye and the review was to be produced so as to coincide with the film’s early June release on DVD and Blu-ray. The review has yet to be published over a month after both my submission and the release date, and so I am now posting it here. If it does eventually appear on Subtitled Online, I will edit the post so that it links to there. The review was written to conform with that site’s house style, hence quite a lot of plot synopsis.

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Cristian Mungiu’s international breakthrough 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme d’or in 2007, and his feature-length follow-up – after contributing to omnibus feature Tales of the Golden Age – was also a prize-winner at the 2012 installment of Cannes; it was awarded Best Screenplay and its two leading ladies shared the Best Actress prize. Like its predecessor, Beyond the Hills deals with some controversial subject matter, here inspired by the happenings of a real-life exorcism ritual in 2005, as documented in a non-fiction novel by writer Tatiana Niculescu Bran.

The film takes place in Romania in what one assumes is the same time period of the original case. A young woman, Alina (Cristina Flutur), arrives back in her home country after having lived in Germany for many years, to visit her friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). Voichita now lives in an isolated monastery, situated in the hills quite far from the nearest town, in an austere community run by a priest (Vaeriu Andriuta) and mother superior (Dana Tapalaga); the priest is openly referred to as Papa by the nuns.

Alina and Voichita shared a room in the local orphanage as children, and have made plans to go on a trip together. Through subtle hints projected throughout the film, it is suggested that the childhood companions are also former lovers, a notion the now devout nun is unwilling to address or pursue. The troubled, increasingly attached Alina hopes to take Voichita away with her permanently, but the latter’s commitment to her community poses a problem for departing for even a brief trip; Papa informs her that total commitment is required to serve God, and that one cannot just leave and return without signifying some lapse in faith.

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Alina is urged by Papa to confess her sins and turn to God, which she resists. After her behaviour proves increasingly strange, there is a violent outburst one night and she is hospitalised. Apparently cured, she is returned to the convent’s care, but the erratic behaviour increases. Some of the other nuns report of demonic utterances from Alina’s lips, and violent seizures provoke suspicion that she has been possessed by corrupt, otherworldly forces. Papa and the nuns soon see no other option but to try to dispel this suspected force from Alina.

As is the case in many examples of recent Romanian cinema to have made their way to a prominent international stage, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Mungiu’s previous film among them, Beyond the Hills paints a vivid picture of systems that fail to aid the interests of those they’ve been established to serve. Though feeling obligated to help those in need, the monastery’s set of regulations and methods are hindered by severely limited views of the world, while both in the monastery and outside it, there are various examples of active evasion by people when tasked with anything that seems especially taxing or unfamiliar.

In one early scene, for example, police officers are frequently distracted by their own personal matters or social conversations, while paying little attention to the cases before them; many of the medical figures in the narrative are also guilty of this. Far from criticising just the devout characters of the piece, Mungiu’s film – which he also scripted – is just as interested in pointing fingers at other facets of society so easily prone to treating those in need of the most help as disposable or unworthy of devoted attention.

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Like many of its ‘Romanian New Wave’ peers, Beyond the Hills is constructed in a deliberately slow-moving and dry style, here also reflected in the film’s locations that favour often overwhelmingly vacant rooms or spots of land; aside from her plans going awry, it becomes quite clear how being stuck in this place could drive Alina crazy. The film offers this unique hybrid of realist stylings and symbolic, ambiguous touches in the signs that provoke the exorcism attempt, and at two and a half hours in length acts as something of an epic in sustained tension and tragic gloom. The viewer follows its two leads, as well as the supporting players around them, drive themselves deeper and deeper into a brutal mess.

This feel is primarily driven by Mungiu’s extended, unbroken shots that only seem to increase in duration as the tension continues to rise, supported by a complete lack of non-diegetic music. Even with the rise in tension, the shots continue to fixate on the little details of the character’s procedures, almost making the events feel like they are occurring in gut-wrenching real time in places. The film is one of an utterly immersive and unnerving atmosphere, and is completely thrilling. Credit must also given to how Mungiu avoids playing any character in a simplistic fashion. Neither lead female is portrayed as a straightforward victim, nor is there an attempt to demonise Papa despite accusations Alina throws at him. Depth and a rich back-story are portrayed through masterfully subtle hints in both the film’s compositions and the actors’ gestures. The languid stylings and epic length of Beyond the Hills may initially put some people off, but this is a brilliant, hypnotic film of tantalising mystery, frustrating exploration of authority and expert directorial skill.

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