Beyond The Hills (Dupa dealuri)
Romania (2012) Dir. Cristian Mungiu
Returning from Germany after trying to escape the poverty of her native Romania, Alina (Cristina Flutur) is reunited with her childhood friend and lover from the same orphanage Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who she is surprised to find is now a novice nun in a strict monastery in the hills, run by the head priest (Valeriu Andriuta).
Alina is taken in at the monastery but the austere regime and high moral demands mean the relationship cannot continue as Alina would like. After a very brief stay in hospital with a mystery ailment, the monastery believes Alina is possessed by the devil and is in need of an exorcism.
Remarkably this film is based on a true story from 2005, which had also been documented in two books by Tatiana Niculescu-Bran, of a young novice nun who died after an exorcism in a monastery in Moldavia. Taking up the task of filming such a bleak and confrontational story is Cristian Mungiu, the man who gave us the equally bleak and confrontational abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, holding another damning mirror up to the harsh aspects of Romanian society.
Rather than simply target the Romanian Church, Mungiu is presenting us with a complex story of love built around the conflict between theism and atheism. The Sapphic aspect of Alina and Voichita’s relationship isn’t explicit outside of a few subtle teases but the strength of their bond, at least in Alina’s eyes, is never questioned.
Rather tellingly, Voichita doesn’t wear her dowdy nun robes when greeting Alina at the train station, slipping them on just prior to entering the monastery, on the gates of which is a warning to all non-believers to stay away. Once inside, being separated from Voichita and having religious doctrine thrown at her from all angles wears Alina down until she has a funny turn that necessitates a trip to the hospital, triggered by Voichita’s admission that she now loves God and no-one else.
So we have two women who are trying to protect the one they love while trying to reach out to the other from their opposing comfort zones. Alina wants the old friend and lover she last saw before going to Germany back but instead is met with reticence based on her faith. There are initially plans for the pair to leave but Voichita’s calling is too strong.
Voichita wants her friend to be safe and well and join her in her spiritual quest, believing they can share a non-physical union through a shared devotion to God. Whatever the intentions it is a case of never the twain shall meet and Alina is the one who suffers as a result.
As in 4 Months… the bumbling and abrogating Romanian bureaucracy is under fire, this time the hospital that willingly hands Alina back over the under qualified nuns to look after without even trying to discern what is wrong with her. The ailment is never revealed but we can assume it is some form of mental illness, possibly schizophrenia or bipolar depression.
As dismissive as the hospital was, the monastery is equally blinkered in not looking past their obvious conclusion that Alina is possessed by the devil. Their methods of healing her are to lock her in a room, pray for her, tie her up and chain her to a cross-like structure and perform an exorcism. The end result is not what they had hoped and the recriminations for their actions are waiting to bite with razor sharp teeth.
There is so much to be said about the subtleties of the story which may make certain issues appear more contentious than they actually are, but I would severely exceed my one thousand word limit. So for now, I’ll say this: some might see this as painting the church as a group of out of date, intransigent theists who naively believe their faith and its teachings are the only basis for diagnosing a problem, but as Mungiu shows us they were simply acting as best they know how.
For atheists and outsiders their actions seem ignorant and risible, maybe even frustrating when we can see that they are clearly counterproductive, but they truly believed in what they were doing and that it was right.
On the other hand, this exploration into the devout life of this small church does engender feelings that such extreme exclusion from the modern world, supposedly to save them from the temptations of evil, has an equally deleterious effect on their mindset.
To see a group of woman from all ages so committed to such a meagre lifestyle is almost frightening, as highlighted in a scene where one nun faints after seeing what she thought was a demonic symbol in a piece of wood she was cutting – not to mention the absolute hysteria exuded surrounding Alina’s supposedly “disturbed” actions of unholy defiance.
Aside from a few moments, the 150 minutes fly by. Mungiu’s direction is intimate yet oddly distant to allow the viewer to fully immerse themselves into the action and make their own minds up about the material presented to them.
The whole production has a cinema vérité feel to it that, bolstered by a superb cast of mostly unknowns, especially the excellent two leads Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan who deliver phenomenally believable performances for non-professionals that pros would envy.
Beyond The Hills won’t be for everyone but those with a thirst for challenging, arresting and deeply affecting cinema will be richly rewarded. A dark, shocking but sublimely masterful piece of neo realistic storytelling.