After co-writing and directing the excellent 2007 Palme D’Or winning film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungui became probably the most famous Romanian filmmaker. Now, he is back with Beyond The Hills, another powerful drama that equally refuses to judge its characters.
Inspired by real events, Beyond The Hills focuses on the troubled friendship of two possibly ex-lovers, Voichita and Alina (played by Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur respectively, who both shared the Best Actress award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival). They have been apart for some time, Voichita having joined a strict Orthodox convent and Alina having been aboard in Germany. Alina returns to their hometown, seeking help from Voichita. The priest in charge of the order, known only as Papa (Valeriu Andriuta), allows Alina to stay in the convent and she tries to fit in with the rest of the devout nuns. However, things take a turn for the worst when Alina starts to rebel against the order.
The film is based on an actual criminal case which shocked Romania in 2005 and it is very difficult to give the film an accurate review without (a) spoiling the plot, which unravels slowly and inexorably and which is best left unknown; and (b) merely reiterating what the film itself so successfully expresses. With 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungui’s key achievement was that he made a film about a backstreet abortion that was eloquent of the physical and emotional toll on those involved and of the terrifying protocol behind the otherwise unofficial procedure, rather than a polemical film that fell on either side of the debate about abortion in general. With that film and here, Mungui manages to humanise a debate that can often become wholly religious or academic. In the case of Beyond The Hills, Mungui succeeds in making a powerfully ambiguous film that is sympathetic of all sides. Every character has good and bad features, even Papa who, in any other film, would be a fascistic sex pest. In fact, Mungui is only openly critical of one thing in the film – bureaucracy, whether it be the inappropriately personal questions of a passport office or the protocol of keeping certain patients out of hospital either because they are no-hopers or because they are there for the long haul. Bureaucracy is dehumanising and Mungui is in the business of humanising every person on screen.
The film’s ambiguities even go so far as its generic iconography. The fixed-camera long take aesthetics are pure art house, its early plot points the stuff of drama and yet its later sequences, in mood and in aesthetics, touch on horror and, once, slapstick comedy. The ambiguity peaks in a key moment in which Voichita watches a restrained Alina struggling against her bonds. Alina’s struggles may either be the result of demonic possession or mental illness – or simply the natural reaction of someone who wakes up to find himself or herself tied to a table. Towards the end, there is a lot of screaming and running around, but the film manages to be almost equally suggest the supernatural and the secular. Again, it seems unnecessary to write about this in detail so clearly and skilfully does the film express what may or may not be hysterics in an Orthodox convent.
Having recently written so harshly of the cowardice of Zero Dark Thirty for merely standing aside and watching while evil is committed, it does seem hard to justify a film as apparently neutral as Beyond The Hills. However, while Bigelow’s wish to merely document is necessarily dehumanising, her impassive camera photographing torture and boardroom scenes as two humdrum but unavoidable activities that CIA operatives just have to do, Mungui is not afraid to allow humanity to exist within his carefully framed images. Mungui contributes to the debate and does not shirk responsibility with some false claim of reportage. Each sequence shot (in which each scene is played out in only one take) is less about creating a semblance of realism and more about revealing the people that the performers are playing. It is a film that is just as meaningful when nothing is happening – a pause or a downward glance may have multiple interpretations. Though he seems to have an interest in people in harrowing situation, he remains nonetheless a humanist.
Beyond The Hills is a well paced, beautifully shot film with great performances from the majority of the cast. It is an intelligent and moving film that is open to life’s complications and man’s imperfections. It also has a fantastic final shot. A film that thoroughly speaks for itself and is worth seeing on the big screen if you can find it.