PRINT March 2013


Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills

Cristian Mungiu, Beyond the Hills, 2012, 35 mm, color, sound, 150 minutes. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur).

BEYOND THE HILLS, Cristian Mungiu’s new film, is in some ways the quintessential expression of the Romanian New Wave that broke at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival with the international premiere of Cristi Puiu’s Death of Mr. Lazarescu and reached its high-water mark two years later with Mungiu’s Palm d’Or–winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days.

Like 4 Months, Beyond the Hills dramatizes the predicament of two young women living under patriarchal law, in a manner that is part suspense thriller, part ordeal, and part procedural. (The procedures are weirdly analogous: an abortion in 4 Months, an exorcism in Beyond the Hills.) Like Puiu’s Lazarescu and his radical follow-up, Aurora (2010), Beyond the Hills draws on the Dardenne brothers’ reinvention of Neorealism (or, alternately, their invention of vérité Bresson) and is a technical tour de force, predicated on an ensemble cast acting before a mobile camera in real time. And, like Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009), as well as all the aforementioned films, Beyond the Hills evokes an oppressive institution. What takes Mungiu’s latest “beyond” is its emphasis on—or rather its materialization of—a particular ideology.

The ascetic authoritarian cult in Beyond the Hills may be the Romanian Orthodox Church but, on an allegorical level, the church makes a convenient stand-in for Romanian Communism. In any case, the movie’s two protagonists, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur), are orphans raised by the state—Monica Filimon, who interviewed Mungiu in Cineaste, points out that the girls, who were probably born around 1987, when 4 Months is set, were abandoned rather than aborted—and Beyond the Hills’s central conflict pits a perhaps deranged, nonconforming individual against a panicked collective of true believers. The story was inspired by a fatal incident that became a national scandal in 2005, inspiring two nonfiction novels by Romanian journalist Tatiana Niculescu Bran. One of these, Deadly Confession, was developed into a theater piece by Andrei Serban (in collaboration with Bran) and staged in October 2007 at New York’s La MaMa Theatre, where Mungiu, in town to present 4 Months at the New York Film Festival, happened to see it, thus setting Beyond the Hills in motion.

The film opens Dardenne style, the camera following Voichita—who has come to meet Alina’s train—walking the wrong way through a surging crowd. The two girls fly into a tearful, prolonged embrace. The first to break free, Voichita leads Alina, who has returned from a stint working in Germany, across the fields to the Orthodox convent where she has lived since leaving the orphanage. It’s a primitive world, without electricity or running water or color. Alina’s blue polyester Reebok running suit is a discordant element in the pattern of black-clad nuns she derisively calls crows.

Increasingly agitated and not at all likable, Alina is desperate to have the sweet yet stubborn Voichita return with her to Germany. The movie strongly suggests that Voichita and Alina were not only childhood friends but innocent lovers and that the larger, tougher Alina was Voichita’s protector. Alina’s absolute desire disrupts the social order—in a sense she embodies a rival religion. (“I hope she didn’t join some cult,” one of the crows hazards as they prepare a meal in the communal kitchen.) Unable to understand Voichita’s dogged obedience to the convent’s elaborate arbitrary rules, Alina freaks out, even attacking Papa and Mama—as the priest who is the convent’s sole male and absolute leader and his wife are called. (It’s surely significant that Papa was a factory worker who received a vision; it’s suggestive that he’s played by a Russian-born, Russian-trained actor, Valeriu Andriută.)

When Alina suffers convulsions, the nuns bring her to the hospital, bound and gagged. (Encased in a body cast, the patient next to her is another victim of love—a fifteen-year-old girl who jumped from a window because she missed her period.) The hospital psychiatrist sends Alina back to the convent, prescribing antidepressants and scripture. Alina responds by giving away her worldly possessions and attempting to confess to the convent’s 464 defined sins, most of which have to do with a lack of faith; when Voichita still refuses to leave with her, Alina reverts to her “possessed” behavior and is first locked in a cell and then chained to a board. It’s for her own safety, of course, yet how natural it seems to torture this obnoxious misfit in the name of a greater good!

Running a leisurely 150 minutes, Beyond the Hills builds in intensity to a tumultuous climax. The exorcism-cum-crucifixion is a hectic neorealist action-film scene, staged even as the townspeople trudge through the snow for Easter services at the convent’s newly consecrated church; it’s postscripted by a caustic exchange between a furious hospital doctor and a distraught gaggle of crows: “God help anyone who falls into your hands.” “Excuse me, but the same goes for doctors!” (True, especially for anyone who’s seen The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.) “I’d rather go to hell than have you pray for me!”

Throughout, Voichita is a stricken, silent witness. For all its dark humor and despairing travesty, Beyond the Hills is basically a lamentation over human stupidity and helplessness. More than any of the other great Romanian movies, this one has a fabulously desultory and abrupt ending. That which lies “beyond the hills” is just another police case—one more incident in the falling snow and the fallen world.

Beyond the Hills opens in New York on March 8.

J. Hoberman’s most recent book, Film After Film; or, What Became of 21st Century Cinema?, was published by Verso last year.