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.
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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.