Cristian Mungiu’s (4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days) sombre, unsettling film about the polarisation of religion and the individual is another challenging effort from the director, one which, despite an over-long 150-minute run-time, is well worth the trip for the patient viewer.
Best friends Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) have long since diverged on their life paths, but meet up under emotional circumstances when Alina comes to visit Voichita, who is now a nun at a secluded monastery. Emotionally cold and situated in a desolate expanse without even modern necessities like electricity, it is clear early on that Voichita is not who Alina expected to meet, and we quickly begin to fear that she has been brainwashed by “Papa” (Valeriu Andriuta), the authoritarian leader of the church. The very fact that her accommodation in the monastery is frequently referred to as a “cell” only helps generate an atmosphere of incarceration, which parallels the rigour and moral duty of devout faith with the imposed routine of a literal prison.
Beyond the Hills is a character piece in which virtually everyone unsettles, most of all Papa, a passive-aggressive, West-hating ideologue who refuses to tolerate dissent, and sees Alina’s presence as an unsavoury intrusion. The film is in many ways indebted to Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, dealing with issues of repression and its inevitable failings. It drips with sexual tension, though ultimately this is just a minute piece of the puzzle.
Mungiu’s direction here is at its most deliberate and ominous; single-take dialogues heighten the intensity and creep-out factor, the eerie atmosphere being enhanced further by Oleg Mutu’s exacting cinematography, capturing the beautiful vistas of the hills-set monastery, and in the final reel, the bleak, forbidding mid-winter. Unexpectedly, the drama is occasionally peppered with bracing humour, satirising the fastidiousness of not only Papa but his myriad followers, as well as their outdated views on sexuality and mental illness, which helps keep the meaty run-time clipping along.
The grim third reel is a painstaking but powerful dirge, the relentlessly sinister vibe accentuated by the nuns’ good-intentions-gone-bad once things truly get hopeless. Mungiu manages to harness a calm, understated power that is simple and succinct, ambiguous and confounding right to its final shot. Stratan and Flutur’s immaculate performances drive a film that could so easily have otherwise been rendered inert; at once confessing Voichita’s moral dilemma and Alina’s latent heartbreak, Beyond the Hills might not be as literally, viscerally upsetting as Mungiu’s last film, but it’s a doozy all the same. An exhausting, challenging, even draining but richly powerful film about a crisis between friendship and faith.
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