Thoughtful, detached, deliberately paced, and punishingly long, Beyond the Hills is a fierce, harsh Romanian winter parable about the tension between secular life and religious living, a grueling story about the sin of indifference. Based on a real-life Moldavian exorcism gone horribly wrong, it is also a painfully observed portrait of a fragile friendship between two young women, by turns alarming, austere, enigmatic, and brave.
Writer-director Cristian Mungiu was facing a serious uphill battle when prodding audiences into his sophomore feature. His Palme d’Or-winning debut, the transfixing abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, is quite possibly the second or third best film of its decade. Beyond the Hills is less cogent, but definitely worthy of its 150 minutes. In other words, it’s an endurance test to embrace, and only 50 percent post-Palme slump.
Brought up together in a dour orphanage, moon-faced Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and sharp-featured Alina (Cristina Flutur) are separated and expelled at 18, Alina to work in Germany and Voichita to subsist as a nun with no electricity. When a stubbornly atheistic, sexually threatening Alina arrives at the monastery and Voichita’s piousness repels her, sabotaging their connection, Alina lashes out in self-harm and is diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
As the agencies of the state turn her aside, she is left in the hands of the convent’s priest and patriarch (Valeriu Andriuta), a flawed, tragic leader motivated by real compassion. While he is not so much corrupted by power as overwhelmed by responsibility, his decisions have palpable and appalling consequences.
Suggestive of a sooty mix between Ingmar Bergman’s cold panache and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s spiritual obsessions, Beyond the Hills depicts a world that seems to have been organized to undermine solidarity and stigmatize decency. The camera dutifully follows the repetitive routines of monastic life, and the emotional currents ripple beneath the surface.
Its middle section is drudgingly repetitive, and its philosophic ending comes as a shock, but Mungiu, basking in the wake of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days’ burning narrative drive, opts for mystery and ambiguity over dynamite. As such, it is an arduous, troubling, and engrossing trek through the twin deserts of blind trust and authoritarianism.
Subtly textured and savagely unadorned, ably acted and laudably even-handed, Beyond the Hills is a necessary act of reclamation, a plaintive exploration of the sacred and profane, a bitter pill where love and faith are two different kinds of poison. It taps into the dark heart of European superstition. Who knew we would want to go there?