Praying the Gay Away
Beyond the Hills (2013)
Cristian Mungiu’s third full-length film divided opinion when it premiered at Cannes in May, where it won some enthusiastic admirers it but failed to achieve the consensus of critical appreciation that coalesced around “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” a few years earlier.
It’s not hard to see why, because it doesn’t quite satisfy the distinct requirements for Cannes’s respective core crowds. Although it’s long and foreboding, it doesn’t quite display enough fanatical austerity or philosophical rigor to appeal to hard-core slow cinema adherents. But neither is it the relatively accessible and salable arthouse product that might appeal to buyers and distributors, unlike Mr. Mungiu’s previous film. Lying somewhere between these two dominant schools of art-cinema appreciation, the film may fall between the cracks when it comes to 2012 retrospective lists, but there’s still much to admire about Mr. Mungiu’s filmmaking.
Twentysomething Alina (Cristina Flutur) returns from a stint in Germany to her native Romania in a state of unexplained disarray, hoping that her ex Voichiţa (Cosmina Stratan) — now a nun — can assist with some spiritual healing. Voichiţa is open to the idea of leaving the nunnery and heading to Germany with Alina, but her domineering priest (Valeriu Andriuta) won’t guarantee her place at the nunnery when she returns. With no choice but to stay with the nuns, Alina’s psychological problems are quickly compounded by the oppressive atmosphere, and the priest’s stringent methods of rehabilitation leading to a spiraling descent of mental breakdown.
The first hour of the film is enticing and exciting, as Mr. Mungiu sets up a number of absorbing, interconnected story strands. There’s the triangular relationship between Voichiţa, Alina and the priest, and their contrasting ideas about how to achieve Alina’s salvation. Then there are curiosities like Voichiţa’s contradictory feelings about remaining in the nunnery and her seeming inability to defend Alina from the priest. There are also intriguing allusions, such as the hints of damaging abuse at the local orphanage, and how its legacy has manifested itself in different ways in a variety of characters, such as Alina’s near-catatonic brother.
The film also refuses to pander to character clichés; so although the priest is a powerful presence, he’s not styled in the stereotypes of messianic cult leader or tyrannical brute. But despite the satisfying subtlety of the first hour or so, the second of the film descends into a more predictable account of Alina’s soul-purging by the nuns. The exorcism of a young adult with psychological problems and the discrepancy of such archaic solutions in modern times is a well worn theme in horror and drama films. In the space of one recent year (2005 to 2006), for example, we saw both a dramatic and genre treatment of the same, supposedly real-life, case of Anneliese Michel, in “Requiem” and “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.” And films where young girls are imprisoned by religious fanatics are 10-a-penny, from disturbing ordeals like “Martyrs” to classics like “Carrie.”
Unfortunately this second section of the film isn’t just thematically derivative; the narrative also becomes more meandering and repetitive. But thankfully the entire length of the film is punctuated by a series of highly dramatic set pieces. While the shooting style remains similar to “4 Months” — with Mr. Mungiu preferring to construct claustrophobic scenes in confined spaces and to revolve his camera around within it — here the technique is similarly deployed but to much more kinetic effect. In one bravura sequence the nuns try to restrain Alina while she has a fit, the camera prowling chaotically around a tumultuous scene, as the rain gets incessantly torrential and darkness descends.
The sound design of the film is also noticeably impressive: Every scene is accompanied by amplified ambient noise depending on our surroundings, whether it’s thunder, traffic or indistinct subterranean rumblings. The effect underscores the general sense of nervous foreboding and enveloping oppression.
Mr. Mungiu’s previous two features have focused directly on the cruelties and ironies of the Ceaușescu era. "Beyond The Hills" is a contemporary film about a nunnery which operates as a state in microcosm, on the margins of organized society but offering disaffected citizens a seemingly popular sanctuary (numerous characters are desperate to take Voichiţa’s place if she leaves). Yet if the depicted failures of such an institution indicate Mr. Mungiu’s skepticism about such extrasocietal solutions, the film also displays an ambivalence about modern the Romanian state. Although officials in the police and hospitals are portrayed as cynical and slightly exasperated, they’re also three-dimensional and not without compassion. Perhaps Mr. Mungiu’s message is that modern Romania suffers from a needless and inherent mistrust of societal institutions that are actually benign, a damaging hangover from the country’s 20th-century history that’s not so easily shed.
BEYOND THE HILLS
Opens on March 8, 2013 in New York and Los Angeles and on March 15, 2013 in Britain.
Written, produced and directed by Cristian Mungiu, inspired by the nonfiction novels of Tatiana Niculescu Bran; director of photography, Oleg Mutu; edited by Mircea Olteanu; production design by Calin Papura and Mihaela Poenaru; released by Sundance Selects (United States) and Artificial Eye (Britain). In Romanian, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A. and rated 12A by B.B.F.C.
WITH: Cosmina Stratan (Voichita), Cristina Flutur (Alina), Valeriu Andriuta (the Priest), Dana Tapalaga (Mother Superior), Catalina Harabagiu (Nun Antonia) and Gina Tandura (Nun Iustina).