Danijel's Review of Beyond The Hills
Beyond The Hills(2013)
Decade lasting Romanian invasion on pretty much all of the prominent European festivals continued last year with, among others, Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills. Mungiu brought his film to Cannes, the same place he picked up a major award for his 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, one of the most acclaimed works of the past decade. As is the case in these situations, all eyes were pointed in his direction when he finally announced his second feature. If the five year gap between two films tells you he's been aware of those looks, his film confirms that notion in few unpleasant ways. It is obligatory longer than its predecessor, has an obligatory controversial theme and has won him few obligatory awards. It also presents itself as an obligatory viewing for fans of serious cinema.
This time around, director stays in the present (months, weeks, days happened in the late eighties) in the story set in a remote orthodox monastery, where nun Voichita (Cosmina Stratan)receives a visitor from Germany, her friend Alina (Cristiana Frutun, both very convincing). Two girls were friends in the orphanage, became something more (we can be pretty sure of that) later, had an arrangement to go work together abroad, but that's now in danger of being delayed because Voichita has found in the monastery life calm and security she feels she has no chance of getting anywhere else. Alina decides to stay with her for a while, with both girls showing substantial dependency on one another, without the courage to admit their paths can't go in the same direction any more.
Alina's attempts to adjust to a life in monastery and become member of a community whose strict readings of The Bible she has no desire of accepting induce few convulsions of rage, prompting the well-meaning priest to believe she is possessed by Satan. The cure is one many moviegoer's have seen on the big screen in the last 40 years, but not often, if ever, in a picture like this.
There are several times when we follow characters leaving the monastery and interacting with regular people. They visit dreary, unequipped hospitals, cold rooms of the police station , take a quick gaze in the hopelessness of the orphanage Alina and Voichita grew up in. After a while, those scenes cause the movie to loose direction. Social themes, structurally set in the background, come to the fore in an intensity that does damage to the balance of the entire piece. Voichita, burdened with group mentality, takes the sacral direction mainly because she has been either failed by other formal institutions, or she has had no reason to rely on their help. In the monastery, separated, she knows all of the promises, though modest, will be fulfilled in the end.
The other conflict, one that puts the ostensible security of blind faith against the risks of giving confidence to another human being threatens to fade away as a consequence of the permeation mentioned above. One gets the feeling that all of the time spent inside the church walls has no real purpose, other than stressing out the social context. As a consequence, some might find the exorcism scenes sensationalist or out of place. Either way, their futility remains.
Mungiu can probably justify two and a half hours running time with a carefully choreographed turn of events, where he needed the last half an hour to put a stamp on many points he pursued. Still, one truth remains. All the layers of suggestive darkness that soak the screen from the first minutes (this is one of those pictures where shades of black are covered by the shades of gray) can't conceal the lack of one memorable scene. Everything is staged with monotonous expertise, as if writer-director thought some small burst of spontaneity would violate his overwrought plan. I'm talking, for example about that wonderful scene in Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, where the first appearance of a female figure, almost an hour into a film, makes both us and the characters forget about everything else. In a picture with contemplative pace this strict, we have a right to expect at least one of those.