(The young and the damned: Alina [Cristina Flutur], in white, and her closest friend, Voichita [Cosmita Stratan] trying to make sense of it all. Below, the artist, Cristian Mungiu, in action. Images courtesy of IFC Films.)
The five-year wait for a new feature by the Palme laureate Cristian Mungiu is over. His harrowing and emotionally devastating new work, Beyond the Hills, winner of two prizes at Cannes a year ago, shows a young artist in full bloom.
The notes are dark, the sensations are anything but. It is the director’s third feature and the first since 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days revealed him as a young star on the make.
Interestingly, the new work was made in collaboration with the Dardenne Brothers (Rosetta, L’enfant), and the influence is explicit. The movie’s rendered in the exacting and rigorous neo-Bressonian manner of the Dardennes: the stripped down, direct style perfectly catching the in-between world, light and dark, East and West, that is a hallmark of the Romanian New Wave.
The new work echoes and deepens many of the themes and ideas of the previous work. The previous movie explored the moral rot and blinding legacy of a dictatorship. The new film examines another brand of institutional totalitarianism, the restrictive and intolerant practices of the Orthodox church.
Mungiu’s script, influenced by two nonfiction novels of former BBC producer Tatiana Niculescu Bran, is also inspired by actual events that happened in the middle of the last decade. Like 4 Months, Mungiu’s new film turns on the complicated and emotionally intricate relationship of two women.
Alina (Cristina Flutur) has returned from Germany to the dank and remote Romanian village where she grew up with her closet friend, Voichita (Cosmita Stratan). Rejected by their birth parents, the two grew up in an orphanage, another cruel reminder of the abject Stalinist conditions of the Ceausescu regime.
Alina’s sojourn in the West has granted her some economic independence and provided incentive to escape her bleak origins. She is ready and quick to pass these qualities onto her friend. Unfortunately Voichita has gone the opposite path, seeking comfort and emotional sanctuary as a novice in the rigorous Orthodox monastery overseen by a kind of monastic supreme leader, the priest known as Papa (Valeriu Andriuta).
It is clear the needy, almost discomforting Alina remains fixated, especially sexually, on Voichita. “I love you, but not like before,” the suddenly chaste Voichita replies. The drama increasingly plays out the clash between the two figures warring over possession of Voichita, the indomitable priest for whom she carries an almost paternal devotion and the fragile interloper she remains linked with.
The monastery (called, without irony, New Hill), without electrify, running water or modernist trappings, is governed by a medieval despair outlined by the severity of the landscapes and the stark and forbidding architecture. Naturally suspicious of Alina, the priest decries the moral bankruptcy of the West and justifies his unbending orthodoxy and reactionary beliefs. He even asserts any believer who enters a non-Orthodox church has committed a grave sin.
Shot by the incomparable cinematographer Oleg Mutu in widescreen, the movie’s almost hyper-naturalism is further heightened by the incredibly photorealistic imagery yielded by the digital photography. Every act, no matter how insignificant, is captured and sustained with an intense physicality. Mungiu is particularly drawn to faces and gestures, Voichita’s dark, open features indicating her own submission; by contrast, Alina’s jumpy, nervous aggression signals her rebellion and denial.
One of the true revelations after I first caught the movie at Cannes was learning that neither actress was a trained professional (one had a background in news broadcast journalism). Mungiu’s talent for casting is electric. Their work is raw, unflinching, and direct; everything is felt rather than learned.
Alina is initially buoyed at the prospect of Voichita leaving the church and accompanying her return to Germany after she applies for a travel visa, with the belief the two are about to begin work on a cruise ship. It produces the first of several uncomfortable encounters with state authorities and bureaucratic officials. Voichita proves an unstable alliance as far as insisting on her own individuality. Already sexually rejected, Alina slowly and irrevocably falls apart.
Failing to convince Voichita to break from the church though also refusing to give up her deep attachment to her, Alina goes for broke and tries something wholly risky. she subordinates herself to the dictates of the church, with the idea of subverting it from within. She proves extremely industrious, through her provocative and steely individuality, in undermining Papa’s authority and privilege. It produces one of the film’s most riveting sequences as a cluster of nuns form around her, reading and cajoling her on the commission of her sins and her need to absolve.
Beyond the Hills becomes a fascinating and haunting meditation on warring ideologies, the liberator subtly ridiculing and rejecting the absurdity of the church’s faith and practices. Alina’s noncompliance takes several striking acts of willful disobedience, even acts of arson and supposed suicide attempts.
Except, all the while, your heart’s in your throat, because you know Alina’s dissident actions carry a horrifying price. The movie’s extraordinary final forty-five minutes are brutish, disquieting and absolutely devastating at documenting the consequences of her intransigence.
The movie is also a foundation work that in its moral inquiries, seriousness and need to pose valid and necessary questions about what it means to be free and alive in the present world makes it a natural successor, artistically and politically, to such indispensable works of the New Wave as Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and Aurora, Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective and Turkish master Nuri Bilge Ceylon’s Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
The movie is undoubtedly uncomfortable in its implications and the wholly different brutality it brilliantly illustrates. “I’d rather go to hell than have you pray for me,” a secular doctor asserts at the end. The work is not in any manner easy, fun or enjoyable in the strictest sense. With a running time of more than one-hundred and fifty minutes, it is long though rewarding.
The film’s bleak and unaccommodating. By the moment of its remarkable closing passage, every image feels absolutely necessary.