Writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s follow-up to his Palme d’Or-winning film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days once again centers on best friends ensnared in a draconian institution. But whereas his 2007 film dealt with a modern issue (securing an illegal abortion) in an urban setting, Beyond the Hills addresses ancient conflicts of faith vs. free will and the needs of the community vs. the desires of the individual, in the isolated setting of a rural Orthodox convent. Inspired by true events, the story is so sensational that Mungiu takes—and needs—150 minutes to deliberately develop events so that the outcome is comprehensible if not acceptable.
Like in his previous film, Beyond the Hills provides no backstory or context, dropping the viewer off at a train station where Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is meeting Alina (Cristina Flutur). The young women, one eventually gleans, grew up together in an orphanage but have been separated for a couple of years while Alina worked in Germany. She’s arranged waitressing jobs for the both of them on a German boat, but Voichita, it becomes apparent, is reluctant to leave the nunnery that has become her home and her family.
Alina cannot understand her beloved friend’s devotion to the order—specifically its priest (Valeriu Andriuta), whose patriarchal leadership relies on secrecy and perhaps lies—or her cold reception, for it appears (though it’s never verified) they may have once been more than friends. So she stays on at the convent under the guise of eventually living there but instead confronts the father with the aim of freeing her friend. As her behavior grows ever more contentious and hysterical, the priest and nuns become convinced she’s possessed and perform an exorcism—the worst possible approach to an angry, frustrated, frightened woman.
Mungiu’s narrative is simple and slow, but necessarily so—one can’t jump immediately from an awkward group dinner to getting strapped to a cross (no, seriously). Shot in long takes that trust the actors to dramatize the intensely emotional undercurrent, such developments can get repetitive and tedious, but without them, one would never buy that the situation could escalate the way it does—nor sympathize with the perpetrators who honestly believe they’re helping the girl.
Methodical and meditative in its approach, Beyond the Hills ends on an infuriatingly ambiguous note. But then it would probably take another 2 ½ hours to do otherwise.
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Writer: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga
Release Date: Mar. 8, 2013