Beyond the Hills may be the best movie no one will want to see in 2013. Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian director who made the celebrated 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, has made a troubling thing to behold, a grueling but perfectly crafted story of religious faith versus human love. His is a tale of a struggle for compassion that dies in the face of fear, of good people who are also zealots making terrible choices in the name of salvation.
Mungiu based his narrative (which won best screenplay at Cannes 2012) on actual events at a Moldavian monastery in 2005 involving a girl and an exorcism gone awry. (Do any exorcisms go well?) In his story, two girls who grew up together in a Romanian orphanage are reunited after some years apart. Alina (Cristina Flutur) has been living and working in Germany. She has returned to Romania to persuade her best and only friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan, who has a sad little moon face like Christina Ricci) to move to Germany with her. But Voichita is now contentedly living the life of a novice nun at New Hill, an Orthodox convent. They seem to have had a sexual relationship in the past—Alina repeatedly asks to share a bed with Voichita and there are references to a man who abused orphans and took pornographic pictures of some or all of them, including Voichita—but it’s never clear whether the bond between them now is one of sexual love. Certainly both are psychologically damaged, and while one can take refuge only in her oldest friend, the other has taken refuge in God.“I love you too,” Voichita tells Alina. “But that can’t compare to the love of God.”
The love of God may be feeding Voichita and her fellow nuns emotionally, but it isn’t doing an adequate job in the bread and butter department. The convent is chronically short on funds and engaged in disappointing negotiations with the local bishop, who refuses to consecrate their hillside church because of something to do with infrastructure-they’re supposedly expanding–and artwork. Which takes money. Without consecration, the flock that would give them money can’t grow. It’s a Catch-22. Though everyone at New Hill speaks of renouncing worldly goods, there is constant wheeling and dealing going on and perhaps some creative borrowing. There is hypocrisy at work here and Alina, who can’t or won’t leave New Hill unless she gets Voichita to come with her, calls Voichita’s attention to it; she’s like the old lover come back to yell insults at the new.
She swears and spits and lashes out at the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and she’s strong, physically intimidating enough to frighten everyone at New Hill. Early on, she threatens suicide and is bound, gagged and brought to the hospital. The care Alina receives from Doctor Solovastru (Costache Babil) is tender, but vague and unhelpful. He asks her if she hears voices (she does) and it seems likely she’ll be diagnosed with schizophrenia, although the mental illness is not mentioned, unless it was lost in the subtitled translation. Drugs are prescribed, but mostly the nuns are urged to give her rest, rest and peace. They send Alina back to the monastery, where no one wants her, except for Voichita, who harbors the faint hope that her wild friend can be tamed by developing a love of God.
Flutur and Stratan shared the Best Actress award at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, which makes absolute sense; their performances are equally fine and hopelessly intertwined. It is the quiet push-and-pull of their attraction that sustains the drive of Mungui’s highly naturalistic storytelling. Mungui engages on a quietly fierce level; he keeps the camera at table height for meals and conversations and lets it sit there for such long
durations that I started to feel I too was at the table, or was one of the nuns in dark habits trying to hold Alina’s flailing arms and legs down. The movie includes what feels like a half dozen decisions and reversals of decisions by the priest and Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga). They seek to banish Alina, then allow her to stay. Why? Because she has nowhere else to go, and which of these good people would put her out on the street?
Without his clucking flock, the priest would. “I sent you there with a purpose,” he says when a group from the convent returns with Alina on one of these occasions when they were supposed to deposit her elsewhere. “God has a plan and is testing you,” the convent’s handyman tells him, and though Andriuta’s performance is too subtle to allow for such an overt action, you can feel the priest gritting his teeth. The movie just gets harder—it goes to a place that would have made the late non-believer Christopher Hitchens howl with appreciation, but unfolds so organically as to be hideously plausible. Though Beyond the Hills is “only” 150 minutes long, watching it seemed to fill my entire day. It should be seen, but it is so provocative and difficult that it would be best taken in with good friends on a languid weekend day, when afterwards a meal and wine can be shared and the whole unsettling thing can be digested with people ready to fight and talk and consider the issue of faith and what it can cost the individual.
The English-language title makes Beyond the Hills sound like an American horror movie: maybe even the type that involves an exorcism, and though the pacing suggests exactly the opposite of that, ultimately, the suspenseful Beyond the Hills does horrify.
But the boogeyman is not an individual in a mask, but rather, a man of the cloth and the nuns who adore him, all of whom are trying very hard to be decent and to control the uncontrollable: love.