Beyond the Hills

Cristian Mungiu’s much-lauded and awards-happy feature follow-up to the brilliant 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a sublime exploration of superstitious dogma clashing with strict secularism. It is at first a painfully slow and bleak account of two women whose lives cross paths once again after they leave the orphanage where they grew up and where, it is inferred, they were sexually and physically abused.

Voichita, played by debutante Cosmina Stratan, is a novice nun of a hilltop Orthodox monastery in rural Romania. The monastery is run by a young conservative priest, Papa (Valeriu Andruita). The remaining members of the monastery are a group of misfit nuns from all walks of life. Papa, like his name, runs the place like a devoted, but distant father. He occasionally interferes with the nuns’ overly superstitious beliefs, but he has a strong stance against all those who are not of his faith. He is at times a repulsive character.

When Voichita’s old friend from the orphanage, Alina (Cristina Flutur) comes to visit, the quiet life of the monastery changes. Alina lives in Germany, but she is going through depression through her loneliness. She wants Voichita to join her in Germany so they can live together. It is implied, not so subtly, that they were lovers. Alina still harbours similar feelings, but Voichita’s love is now for something much bigger and less corporeal. When Alina is refused Voichita’s devotion, she loses it.

At first what seems to be “agitated” behaviour is soon interpreted by the nuns and Papa as something demonic. The fact that she knows karate, something Voichita keeps referring to, is ignored when Alina shows “extraordinary strength”. She must be cleansed from evil spirits.

It would be a mistake to think of this as a typical exorcist horror film. It is horrifying, but not in a demonic sense. What Alina goes through is interpreted through an extremely superstitious point of view. No one questions, not even the doctors at the hospital, that this young woman may be going through something either mental or physical. The darkest point in the film is when the grandfatherly doctor at the hospital suggests that they pray for her. This he says without a hint of irony, as he sits before an etching of Jesus on the wall of his office.

Beyond the Hills is a very challenging film, a quintessentially European art-house film with a slow pace and a hefty running time of over 2.5 hours. But it rewards amply. It is not as brilliant or scathing as 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but it is no less awe-inspring. Highly recommended.