Beyond the Hills is Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s much-anticipated follow-up to his Palme d’Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days. Whereas that title referred to a timespan, this film’s refers to a place, namely an Orthodox monastery atop hills in the Romanian region of Moldavia.
There we meet two young women, Alina and Voichita, who once shared a room in a nearby orphanage. It becomes apparent that theirs is a very close bond or at least it once was, and a romantic alliance is even hinted at, but much has changed since their years together at the orphanage.
Voichita is now a devout nun, obeying the patriarchal command of a head-priest everyone calls ‘Papa’. Alina on the other hand is visiting from Germany, where she has found jobs for her and her friend, and fully expects Voichita to honour a promise they once made – to never be apart again. But tension arises when the nun decides to put her love of God first and remain at the monastery. The defiant Alina is both confused and deeply troubled by Voichita’s change of heart and will become a disruptive force within the monastery’s ascetic community as the story takes a series of surprising and increasingly frightening turns.
Gradually and through small details, a backstory emerges evoking a past of bullying, exploitation and desperation, which only reinforces the idea of the strong connection between Voichita and Alina. One scene where the monastery’s mother superior is begged by a young woman from the orphanage, to find a position for her within the convent, speaks loudly about the fragility of the nuns who seek refuge there. Moldavia is one of the poorest regions in the EU today, and the title itself suggests a place forgotten by the rest of civilisation.
Within the monastery, Papa observes antiquated dogmas and traditions, which the nuns adhere to, either nodding to what he says or parroting it later themselves. Neither are the institutions surrounding the hills shown in a better light. The police are blasé and effectively powerless, the hospital overworked and full – when Alina is taken there after first signs of psychological distress, the staff send her back suggesting the best remedy would be to pray for her.
As in 4 Months, Mungiu’s new film is disapproving of institutions and bureaucracies, and focuses intently on a female friendship that is severely tested by outside circumstances, but in many ways it is a different kind of film. The director has this time added ambitious themes of spirituality, of good and evil, of earthly love versus divine love, of the clash between religion and the secular modern world. And unlike the odious black-market abortionist in 4 Months, there is no overwhelmingly bad-intentioned character on display here. Never does the film caricature the more spiritual characters; Voichita seems genuinely content in her new piousness.
However easier it may be to empathise with Alina’s elemental need for the love of her companion, and her more down-to-earth attitude, she is not depicted as merely a victim, nor is the monastery’s way of life purely shown as negative. In the end even Papa, for all his stubbornness, still emerges as someone trying to do what he thinks is the right thing. Beyond the Hills therefore refuses to be facile and make easy judgments; its plot is loosely based on a real-life event which shocked Romania a few years back and Mungiu clearly wishes to explore and open debate rather than sensationalise. In this, the film is a success as its neutrality allows the audience to make their own minds up.
The psychological realism, handheld one-shot takes, bleak beauty of the visuals (Oleg Mutu the regular cinematographer of the Romanian New Wave is proving himself to be one of the great contemporary DPs), and deft performances of subtle restraint from the two leads (who shared the Best Actress award at Cannes 2012), all add to the intense immersing mood of the film. The doomed passion between the two central characters leaves a powerful sadness that sneaks up on you by the end, and stays for days. One of the best films of 2013 and Mungiu confirms himself as the European auteur to keep an eye on.
Beyond the Hills: ★★★★★
Dir: Cristian Mungiu