×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Beyond the Hills

The tensions between the spiritual and the secular, groups and individuals, are examined in intelligent, creepily insinuating but not entirely satisfying fashion in Cristian Mungiu's latest work.

With:
With: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga. (Romanian dialogue)

The tensions between the spiritual and the secular, groups and individuals, are examined in intelligent, creepily insinuating but not entirely satisfying fashion in “Beyond the Hills.” Set largely within the physical and psychological confines of a rural monastery, this latest work from gifted Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu boasts the same formal control and somber realism that distinguished “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.” But Mungiu’s slow-burning, scrupulously evenhanded portrait of religious hysteria rarely achieves that film’s gut-level intensity, leaving audiences with an accomplished but bleak 152-minute picture that will require favorable critical attention to find an arthouse niche.

Quite absorbing despite its deliberate pace and running time, this is Mungiu’s first feature since “4 Months” won the Palme d’Or in 2007 and confirmed a creative renaissance in Romanian cinema (he also produced the 2009 omnibus work “Tales From the Golden Age”). While it may be unreasonable to expect lightning to strike twice, “Beyond the Hills” is so clearly a companion piece to “4 Months” that it naturally summons comparisons: Once again, Mungiu explores the powerful bond between two young women trying to negotiate the boundaries of a particular prison.

In this case, it’s one built on the unyielding foundations of religious dogma, a subject that should resonate well beyond the boundaries of the unconsecrated Orthodox monastery where the film is set. In this remote Moldavian enclave, consisting of a simple chapel and a few huts cut off from electricity or running water, a strict but not unkind local priest (Valeriu Andriuta) oversees an order of young nuns who refer to him as “Father” or “Papa.”

One of his highly devout and impressionable charges is Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), a woman in her 20s who receives an extended visit from her close childhood friend Alina (Cristina Flutur). Details of the girls’ relationship gradually arise: They grew up together in an orphanage, but were separated when Alina moved to Germany and Voichita answered her monastic calling. Hoping Voichita will accompany her back to Germany, the emotionally forthcoming Alina tries to reignite a heavily implied sexual relationship, which her pious friend is equally eager to repress.

These private moments provide a brief respite from a life otherwise lived in full view of Papa, a mother superior (Dana Tapalaga) and the other nuns, who fill their days with menial tasks and charitable errands, their conversations dominated by earnest Christian pronouncements such as “The West has lost the true faith” and “When sins are forgiven, man finds peace.” In one of the script’s most darkly amusing sequences, Alina sits in resigned silence as the nuns read her a catalog of 464 sins compiled by the Orthodox Church.

That instance aside, Alina is having none of it, rejecting every attempt to tame her defiant will. When she lashes out physically, the priest and nuns see no alternative but to tie her up and take her to the hospital, but the doctors and nurses soon release her back into the monastery’s care. Unwilling to leave without Voichita, Alina won’t remain subdued for long, and as a particularly frigid winter sets in, her increasingly rattled hosts begin to suspect her condition may be demonic in nature.

Shot in fluid, unbroken handheld takes by Mungiu’s regular d.p., Oleg Mutu, the picture builds its moral crisis with an unwavering commitment to realism and methodical attention to detail. The widescreen compositions, all blues, grays, browns and blacks, convey a physical sense of the cramped, chilly quarters in which these women lead their ascetic lives, and the power dynamics are continually reinforced by the helmer’s impeccable blocking. At times, the nuns’ vampirical black robes (in contrast with their deathly pale faces) are swallowed whole by background shadows, conjuring the charged, disquieting atmosphere of a horror picture.

Indeed, the harrowingly plausible events of the film’s second act bring to mind any number of genre forebears, from “The Exorcist” to Hans-Christian Schmidt’s “Requiem.” Yet while Mungiu deals heavily in psychological ambiguity, he never seriously entertains the possibility that Alina may be demon-possessed. Nor does he turn the priest and nuns into figures of easy scorn; though they remain oblivious to the lesbian longings at the root of Alina’s odd behavior, their responses to her outbursts are as patient and well-intentioned as they are ultimately misguided.

It’s the filmmaker’s fair-minded approach that ultimately gets the better of his material (adapted from journalist Tatiana Niculescu Bran’s investigation of a real-life 2005 incident), compounded by a frustrating unwillingness or inability to penetrate his characters’ thoughts. There are deeper forces and mysteries to this tale than a strictly observational approach, however unblinking, can entirely capture. Observing the situation at an icy remove, “Beyond the Hills” never builds the palpable menace and pressure-cooker anxiety of “4 Months,” and its dramatic progression feels obvious, even predictable, by comparison.

Performances are excellent, led by the compelling Flutur, her mouth a razor-thin line of defiance, and Stratan, whose eyes become enormous as events play out to their ghastly conclusions. Remarkably, this is the first feature for both leads. Mungiu regular Andriuta presents the bearded priest as a figure of moral authority as well as discernible decency. The actresses cast as the other nuns are given little to work with besides stock scriptural maxims; indeed, the script’s wall-to-wall dialogue often feels at odds with Mungiu’s visual mastery.

Beyond the Hills

Romania-France-Belgium

Production: A Mobra Films presentation of a Why Not Prods., Les Films du Fleuve, France 3 Cinema, Mandragora Movies co-production, with the support of the Romanian National Center for Cinematography, Eurimages, Centre National du Cinema et de l'Image Animee, France, with the contribution of Canal Plus, France Televisions, Cine Plus, Wild Bunch. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Cristian Mungiu. Co-producers, Pascal Caucheteux, Gregoire Sorlat, Vincent Maraval, Jean-Pierre Dardenne, Luc Dardenne, Jean Labadie, Bobby Paunescu. Directed, written by Cristian Mungiu, inspired by the nonfiction novels of Tatiana Niculescu Bran.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen), Oleg Mutu; editor, Mircea Olteanu; production designers, Calin Papura, Mihaela Poenaru; sound (Dolby Digital), Cristian Tarnovetchl; line producer, Tudor Reu. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 18, 2012. Running time: 152 MIN.

Cast: With: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga. (Romanian dialogue)

More Scene

  • Taron Egerton Cannes Film Festival 2019

    Taron Egerton Addresses ‘Rocketman’ Comparisons to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ Takes Subtle Jab at Bryan Singer

    Taron Egerton says that he’s flattered by comparisons between his Elton John musical “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” last year’s smash hit about Queen frontman Freddie Mercury. “I’m proud that we’re mentioned in the same breath,” says Egerton, who plays John in the upcoming “Rocketman,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to a five-minute standing [...]

  • Ethan Hawke, Bobby Cannavale and Griffin

    BAM Gala Marks Leadership Change, Celebrates Brooklyn as 'Cultural Center of New York'

    Wednesday’s annual gala celebrating the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) served as a poignant moment of transition for the New York stalwart of contemporary performance. As long-time artistic director Joe Melillo, who along with Harvey Lichtenstein transformed BAM into a vanguard of progressive art, prepares to pass the torch to new leadership, gathered patrons and [...]

  • Dua Lipa Tom Jones

    Dua Lipa and Tom Jones to Perform at amfAR's Cannes Gala (EXCLUSIVE)

    Variety‘s Marc Malkin is on the scene at the Cannes Film Festival. Get the scoop on all the news, parties and more straight from the Croisette below. AmfAR’s upcoming Cannes gala is shaping up quite nicely. Sources tell Variety that the evening will feature performances by Dua Lipa and Tom Jones. And they’re not the only [...]

  • "Deadwood" Cast Describes Emotional Homecoming on

    'Deadwood' Cast Describes Emotional Homecoming on the Historic Set

    The phrase “Welcome the f— back” marks the billboards and posters for the return of “Deadwood,” but that sentiment doesn’t just apply to the audience. Returning to the town of Deadwood was a homecoming of sorts for the cast and crew of the HBO show, who shared that stepping back into the meticulously recreated late-1800s [...]

  • Awkwafina to Receive Maui Film Festival

    Awkwafina to Receive Maui Film Festival Shining Star Award

    Awkwafina will receive the Shining Star Award at this year’s Maui Film Festival. The 20th annual gathering runs from June 12-16. The award is given to actors “who dare to dream big dreams and delivers brilliantly charismatic and revelatory performances every time that opportunity knocks.” “We are thrilled to have the opportunity to celebrate and [...]

  • Issa Rae, Hasan Minhaj & Michael

    The 2019 Webby Awards Celebrate the Spirit of the Internet

    At the 23rd annual Webby Awards in New York on Monday night, presenters and honorees reflected on the advances that led to both the highs and lows of the internet in 2019 – and how the organization itself has had to evolve to accommodate that rapid shift. “When we started in 1997, pretty much the only [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content