Cristian Mungiu, director and script based on the non-fiction novels Deadly Confession and Judges’ Book by Tatiana Niculescu Bran
Since he won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu has been on the critical radar as one of the most prominent young directors in the world. When Beyond the Hills had its debut at Cannes last spring, the Romanian auteur scored an instant success, winning the award for best script while his two leads, Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, shared the Best Actress prize. Since then, the film was nominated for an Oscar as best Foreign Film and the venerable British film magazine Sight and Sound placed it on their Top Ten list for 2012.
Cultural clash between the worldly and the mythic in contemporary Romania; lesbian melodrama; religious parable
Alina returns to Romania from Germany because she’s desperate to be with Voichita, her best friend since they were in an orphanage as children. When she finds her, Alina discovers that Voichita has changed from the worldly girl who had allowed boys to take advantage of her as a youth. She’s now a nun in an Eastern Orthodox monastery, determined to lead a strict, religious life.
Alina is appalled. She wants Voichita back and it quickly, if subtly, emerges that the two were lovers before Alina went to Germany. The young women become locked in a struggle: Voichita wants to love her but only spiritually while Alina is determined to try anything to get her lover back—and out of the monastery.
Oblivious to the lesbianism but certainly aware of Alina’s non-religious attitude, the Priest and Mother Superior attempt to separate the two, but that proves to be very difficult to do. Whenever Alina acts in a provocative manner, Voichita begs forgiveness—and the Priest and Mother Superior give in. Finally, Alina goes too far and tries to throw herself down a well.
Taken to a hospital, Alina is soon out, with heavy doses of pills as her only treatment. At first, she’s accepted back in the monastery but soon her attitude proves disruptive and she’s asked to leave. Within a few hours, Alina is back, claiming that she now accepts the priest and the Church. Within days, she recants, swearing at the priest and denouncing all the sisters. But she still won’t leave.
It’s now near Easter and the priest decides to do something extraordinary: an exorcism. It’s now a matter of life and death—a battle for the body and soul of a young Romanian woman. The denouement is harsh and vivid, bringing into focus the clash between modern worldly Romania and the old religious, and mythic, past.
The Cannes festival jury got it right: the performances by Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan are absolutely persuasive. They don’t overact though the material is clearly melodramatic. Instead, the two rely on being quietly effective, which aids the film. Flutur is particularly impressive, etching a profile of a stubborn, willful woman who will do anything to get her lover back. In the more difficult part, Stratan has to convey an inner strength based on faith, which is meant to guide her to keep her love for Alina strong, but physically at bay. As the priest, Valeriu Andriuta is fine, too, playing a good man, who, as he admits “makes mistakes because only God is perfect.”
Mungiu is a highly effective director, working in a tight, minimal style that is reminiscent of the early Iranian films of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf and the gritty working class dramas of Ken Loach. Never overtly stylish, Mungiu relies on naturalistic performances, fine scripts and on-location shooting to realize his films.
Beyond the Hills is too downbeat a film to be a box office hit. But it’s terrific: thought provoking, heartrending and beautifully made. For those with a love of art cinema and intelligent melodrama, this film is well worth seeing.