Review: ‘Beyond the Hills’ and Its Many Nuns Are Harrowing, Unforgettable, and Visionary

By  · Published on March 8th, 2013

Editor’s note: Daniel Walber’s review originally ran during NYFF 2012, but we’re re-running it as the film’s limited theatrical release begins today.

American cinema has had a recent fascination with cults, from last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene through the recently released Scientology-inspired epic, The Master. These films primarily focus on charismatic leaders and their relationship with a single victim, regardless of whether that leader is a remote farm-dwelling mystic like John Hawkes in Martha Marcy or Philip Seymour Hoffman’s erudite and intellectual riff on L. Ron Hubbard. Perhaps this is because the United States has only had smaller-scale social control, individual religious sects rather than any national experiment with totalitarianism. It allows us to blame misguided obedience on a single man, however terrifying he may be.

European films cut from the same cloth, on the other hand, are working with very different material. The legacies of 20th century Fascism and Communism have driven great filmmakers for decades, most recently in the former Soviet Bloc. The last decade’s renaissance of Romanian cinema has spent much of its thematic energy dealing with Nicolae Cau?escu’s dictatorship, but none until now have looked at it specifically in the terms of cult-like social control. Cristian Mungiu goes there with Beyond the Hills, a triumph of harrowing beauty that stands with the best films of the Romanian New Wave.

Like many a great epic of the spirit, Beyond the Hills starts small. Mungiu opens on a train station in rural Romania, where two young women are reunited after what feels like a lifetime apart. Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) grew up in the town’s orphanage, until Alina was moved to a foster family and then emigrated to Germany to work. Now she has briefly returned from abroad for Voichita, so they can move west and start a new life together. Yet in the years they spent apart Voichita entered a Romanian Orthodox monastery, and is currently a novice. She wants Alina to stay, perhaps even to become a nun.

And with that, Mungiu has set up a spiritual and emotional clash that will light the ensuing 150 minutes aflame. The monastery turns out to be a place of intense social control, both an indictment of religious extremism and a metaphor for the totalitarianism of the Communist period. This has, of course, been done before. Films as disparate as Amarcord and The White Ribbon take on the psychological sources of communal violence. Yet Mungiu’s unique contribution is the way he humanizes the story and drives his metaphor home. Where Fellini used adolescent sexuality and Haneke invoked the loss of childhood innocence, the Romanian director tells a love story.

Alina and Voichita, friends from childhood, are also deeply in love. At least they were, before Voichita entered the monastery. Mungiu alerts us to this early on, in a quiet and intimate moment as they settle down for their first night together in three years. Voichita insists on separate beds, but is willing to rub Alina with some alcohol to clean her skin after the long journey. The sexual tension is palpable, as we watch Voichita try to push away a romantic need which was once the only positive element in her life. This extreme aberration of Russian Orthodoxy has taught her to avoid and hate her own desires, and obey a strict set of rules regardless of the circumstance.

In this particular kind of oppressive environment, the most threatening kind of rebellion would be a warm, loving relationship between two women. The monastery has but one man, the priest, who all of the nuns call “Papa” rather than “Father” when in private. They aren’t allowed to wear pants, or anything other than black clothes. They cannot confess while on their period. They cannot even fast to atone for their sins without the express permission of the priest. There is a book delineating all possible sins, and it includes 464. Yet it is important to note that this is not an indictment of the Romanian Orthodox Church specifically. Mungiu adds in careful details, including the mysterious refusal of the bishop’s office to consecrate the monastery’s church. This individual priest seems very much on his own, as if he has alienated himself and his flock from mainstream Orthodoxy. He also takes a back seat to the repression of his followers, at least compared to the charismatic leaders in American films. Rather it is the nuns that often police themselves, evidence of a wider and deeper social control that begins to resemble the Communist period.

Mungiu’s style of filmmaking also plays with the distinction between reality and allegory, taking full advantage of the cinematic tools we have seen in the last decade from Romanian directors. Beyond the Hills sometimes feels like an assemblage of only the longest of long takes, almost impossible stretches without a single cut or even the slightest of camera movements. On the one hand this can make the film seem extremely naturalistic, as if we are not even watching a film but rather are sitting in the presence of the characters. However, this extreme form of editing can also evoke the reverse.

Once a take has gone long enough, it can cause an awareness of its own length, drawing attention to itself. Instead of a close up of Voichita’s face he shoots her surrounded by the other nuns, framing it so that the eye is drawn right into her expression over the darkly-clothed crowd. It adds an context to her emotions, emphasizing her troubled relationship with the monastery. As the take lingers and lingers it becomes more urgent, growing restless. The fact that Mungiu will not cut away only adds greater significance to each passing moment. We are fascinated by its length, nervous about how and when it will end, and impressed by the grandiose confidence inherent in daring to edit this way. The result is a hyper-awareness that takes what would otherwise be simple naturalism and drives its potency through the church roof.

When Radu Muntean uses the long take, as in Tuesday, After Christmas, it can feel like a set piece in an action movie. A married couple fighting takes on the dimensions of an explosion, with all the requisite verbal fireworks. Mungiu’s style, on the other hand, is more open. In the official spaces so common in recent Romanian cinema, hospitals and police cars, he will bring in brief glimpses of completely unrelated characters. A doctor is on the phone with a friend, and finds herself discussing her son. Two cops talk about a case of murder on the other end of the town. Mungiu also takes advantage of the environment to create an open cinematic field, easy to do when shooting a remote monastery at the top of a hill. All of Romania lurks on the edge of the screen, perhaps all the world. Coupled with the hyper-reality of his long takes, this makes for a quietly breathtaking film that leaves the mind overcharged and deeply receptive.

The Master ends quietly, having turned the social power of a cult inward and minimizing the focus to a single individual. Beyond the Hills concludes by tearing itself asunder and turning outward to humanity at large. In the best final shot of the year so far, Mungiu takes all of the terror, moral compromise and desperation of totalitarian social power and guts it with another extraordinary long take. Where does this kind of fear and domination fit in 21st century?

If an answer exists, it is somewhere in the last frame of this latest Romanian masterpiece.

The Upside: Charismatic nuns!

The Downside: Sad, terrified nuns.

On the Side: The film is based on a real exorcism case in rural Romania in 2005.

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