Beyond The Hills

Beyond The Hills

*****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Cristian Mungiu's broad and true expedition into the nature of indifference, Beyond The Hills is loosely based on a true story about an exorcism that was sensationalised in the press in 2005.

This important exploration completely refuses to be what you want it to be. In this world, a Bishop won't come to consecrate a church until it is painted. It is our world.


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If movies about exorcism are your guilty pleasure, and you find a thrill in stories about orphaned young women in isolated convents, then this unparalleled work of art was constructed with you in mind. Be careful, though, because at every turn up the bleak Romanian hills, you will be confronted with yourself, your expectations, your belief system, and your stamina.

We are faced with the profound story of two young women, Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who grew up together in an orphanage and are reunited at the start of the film, when Alina returns after having worked for two years in Germany, while Voichita has become a nun in the small orthodox convent, led by the priest (Valeriu Andriuta), she calls Papa, and the mother superior (Dana Tapalaga), they call Mama.

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Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan shared the best actress award at Cannes this year. Their performances are keenly affecting from the start and as emotionally intertwined as the story of Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman's characters in The Master. If the way Alina cries and hugs her friend hello, in between train tracks, does not trigger your empathy, you are possibly already dead.

"Continuity is important," is not spoken as a comment on filmmaking, but the priestly advice, to keep Voichita in the monastery, instead of having her help a friend in need in a far away land.

The long shots, which the director also employed in his masterful Palme d'Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (Cannes 2007), were challenging, Mungiu said during the press conference. The way time is structured in Beyond The Hills is vital for its honesty. When "the rhythm is the shot, not the editing … you don't cut when they reach that level of energy." I asked the director about his decision to change the season from June (when the "real" events took place, as told in Tatiana Niculescu Bran's non-fiction novels) to February, and how the passing of time falls into timelessness. "Easter was coming, the most important feast," he explained. "People were starting to crowd up at the church." Exorcism is not exactly a public spectator sport.

In the monastery, they are without electricity, get water from a well, and eat what looks like polenta while talking money. Alina is taken in by Voichita, as a guest in her room, and the two women catch up on their different paths during the time they were apart, the way real people would, not the way movie expositions function. "You don't give details," Voichita explains. Again, Mungiu beautifully doubles the meaning. The girl is referring to confession, not moviemaking, which is as far off her diegetic reality as can be. "They say father has in icon," says Voichita, one that can grant wishes.

A man named Pfaff (A German word for priest during the middle ages, now famous for sewing machines) is mentioned by several people, an all important Sandusky figure, a shadow, whose only physical representation is the video camera he employed to take pictures at the orphanage, once upon a time.

"Did you mention self-abuse?" Alina has to be taught how to properly confess, which turns out to be an art in itself. "Why is it forbidden to wear trousers to confession?" The outsider asks good questions. The Orthodox Church compiled a list of 464 sins and in a wonderful scene, the two protagonists sit with the other young nuns, going over that list, giddy, as if they were checking out a quiz in a teenage magazine. What lipstick type are you - for Christians. If you cheat, the confession doesn't count. Be quick, "say the number!"

Voichita operates seamlessly in the convent and is torn by the arrival of her childhood friend. At no point does the film give in to the sensationalism you might desire.

"I'd rather you loved me," instead of God, that is the problem for Alina in both meanings you can read in this sentence. A Christ figure with planks and chains becomes the future. "The Devil is in her, " say the women in the convent. Who are they kidding? The nuns are like silly girls making up fears for their own excitement. Without the internet to amuse you, you might want to do some exorcising yourself, for the thrill's sake. Mungiu reveals the wounds, without ever exploiting them.

Cristina Flutur's Alina is heartbreaking, often resembling a much, much smaller child, a very clear headed one in her awareness of injustice.

When she is being told that "money is the eye of the Devil," Alina goes for it, gives away her possessions and learns how true this holds for her equally poor foster family where she is remembered as the girl who loved hot water and had trouble rationing her showers. Replace me, my sweet replaceable you. Who is to blame? Not those with no education to speak of, who struggle for survival. There is a female doctor, who acts like a wake-up call. Pay attention to a seemingly throw-away comment on the phone about her son and his toys. There you will find the urgent social message of this film in a nutshell.

The Gas station belongs to a different world. In the convent it is easy to forget the century we are in. What seem like parallel spheres are actually one and this film shows how easily and conveniently that is forgotten.

Mungiu's films teach you the art of seeing, while he unravels the common control mechanisms in front of our eyes. A hospital scene in Beyond The Hills is the perfect example of his cinematic overturn. The girl we are concerned with is in a hospital bed in the background of the shot. The patient filling the foreground is completely bandaged, a stump for a left hand, a cut up face, a mummy. "She jumped from her window because she didn't have her period," we hear someone say. A universe opens up in this one sentence. Plus, it does not seem to correspond to the patient we see, with the stump, so there is another and another, and another story like hers, and the world goes on, uncaring as usual. In moments like these, the movie takes your breath away.

"Father will read." "How the evil one torments her." Confronted with the smell of the cross by the police, the dangerous deliverance has to be faced.

The sheltered and safe horrors of Transylvania may be tempting, but it is much more important to go beyond the forest - ultra silvam - beyond play, use your knowledge wisely to wake up from the entertainment slumber, and meet what lies beyond the hills instead.

Reviewed on: 24 Sep 2012
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The story of two female orphans and their friendship in a remote Romanian monastery.
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Director: Cristian Mungiu

Writer: Cristian Mungiu, Tatiana Niculescu Bran

Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga, Catalina Harabagiu, Gina Tandura, Vica Agache, Nora Covali, Dionisie Vitcu, Ionut Ghinea, Liliana Mocanu, Doru Ana, Costache Babii, Luminita Gheorghiu, Alina Berzunteanu

Year: 2012

Runtime: 150 minutes

Country: Romania, France, Belgium


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