Romanian director Christian Mungiu’s previous feature, the 2007 Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a stark social realist drama set in Bucharest in 1987 during the final years of the Ceausescu regime. The story follows two roommates, Gabriela Dragut (Laura Vasiliu) and Otilia Mihartescu (Anamaria Marinca), who board together while they complete their university studies. Gabriela is pregnant, and the women have arranged the hire of a surgeon to complete the abortion, illegal under Natalist policy. He has followed up this grim story with another intense, challenging and thought provoking one, this time set closer to the present day. Beyond the Hills tackles themes of abuse and abandonment, religious fervour, collective oppression and a bureaucratic sanctuary with enclosed and morally questionable methods. Mungiu picked up Best Screenplay and Cosimina Stratan and Cristina Flutur shared the award for Best Actress at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. After over a year touring the festival circuit, it has now opened in cinemas on limited release.
Within an isolated Romanian Orthodox convent, Alina (Cristina Flutur) has been reunited with Voichita (Cosimina Stratan) after spending several years abroad working in Germany. The two women have supported each other since meeting as children in an orphanage. Alina wants Voichita to return with her to work in Germany, but Voichita refuses, having found cleansing refuge in faith and a new family amongst the priest and nuns.
Jealous and heartbroken, Alina attempts to win back Voichita's affection by challenging the priest (Valeriu Andriuta), who claims that Voichita should not surrender to the lures of the West (an attractive waitress position on a boat). Her behaviour provokes suspicion of evil possession and after a short stint in the hospital Alina is included in the routines of the monastery in the hope that she will find her peace. As her health continues to worsen her behaviour becomes damaging and the priest decides to order extreme action - the results of which are conveyed in the harrowing final third.
Mungiu has again centered his story on the relationship between two young women, former lovers divided and then reunited, addressing the ramifications of their devotion to one another through conflicting faiths and desired life avenues. The unique emotion of the individual – Alina has misguided optimism about renewing a relationship with the woman she grew up with during the fear and repression of Communism – opposes the practices of the monastery and interrupts Voichita’s strict allegiance to her new path. This collective, who treat Alina’s ailments as a threat within their convent, find their judgment of goodwill clouded, falling victims to hysteria. They end up sabotaging Alina’s basic human rights under the guise of Orthodox certainty. The screenplay was actually inspired by two non-fiction novels from BBC correspondent, Tatiana Niculescu Bran, which documents the case of a young member of a Moldavian monastery.
All the way up until the brilliant final frame, this is sophisticated and admirable filmmaking. It is a heavy-themed and challenging film, an experience that benefits from patience. The striking static photography and construction of the lengthy unbroken sequences – which never fail to feel uncomfortably naturalistic - is astounding. It is commonplace when watching it to forget it is a film at all, the feeling is like you have been transported and are immersed in an unsettling and foreign environment. You seek a way out, but the situation gets increasingly grimmer. He embeds his story into an exploration of ideas, offering a commentary on Romanian society.
Mungiu uses a cinematic language that can be very tough to process. He fills the mise en scene with details, building his setting and establishing atmosphere by observing the characters - their conversations and movements. The sparse exteriors convey the sense of isolation and the absence of a soundtrack emphasizes the natural sensory stimulants. Mungiu gradually increases the tension throughout, leaving the nature of Alina's illness a mystery and what crippling effects the convent's actions will have on her life and their congregation.
The primary detractor here is the length. At 150 minutes, this is gruelling viewing. It could have perhaps been told more economically, but the establishment of atmosphere is an essential prerequisite for the events in the final act. Beyond the Hills isn’t easy to forget, and though I doubt I will ever watch it again, Mungiu re-proves he is one of Europe’s best filmmakers.
Andrew Buckle - follow Andy on Twitter here: @buckle22