I find orthodoxy of all kinds scary, especially when clung to in resistance to inevitable change. There’s just something about groups and beliefs that quell the impulse toward individuality that opposes human nature (at least in the West). Worse, these kinds of groups are unwilling to evolve, which is also a kind of defiance to the natural state of the universe.
Admittedly, for awhile that kind of obstenance can be admirable. Traditions have their place within reason, but the main quality that defines most orthdoxies is a marked lack of reason.
The Eastern Orthodox in Romania makes up part of the world in Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills. Based on a pair of non-fiction novels of Tatiana Niculescu Bran, the film provides a meditative exploration of abandonment and different extremes. For the two female leads in the film, their choices in life are defined by these two qualities. They can either submit to the cloistered Orthodox or try to make it in a world that doesn’t care.
Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri)
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Release Date: March 8, 2013 (limited)
Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) grew up together in the same orphanage when they were young. It seems like they were once lovers — it’s the way that loneliness and proximity can deepen already deep affections. Alina eventually left Romania to work in Germany while Voichita took refuge in a remote Orthodox monastery. Years later, Alina has returned to bring Voichita to Germany with her where they can be together again. Yet in these intervening years, Voichita has become devoted to God and the way of life at the monastery. She refuses to leave. Alina refuses to leave without her. Its in this unwillingness to give in or to give up — another form of orthodoxy, maybe — that leads to the eventual tragedy of the film: an attempted exorcism.
The head of the monastery (Valeriu Andriuta) is an imposing figure, like a tall shadow roaming through the snow. The sole male there, the nuns do as he says at all times. He’s part father, part teacher, part emissary of God. He tells Alina that if she wants to stay in the monastery with Voichita, she must submit to the way of the Orthodoxy. What follows is a series of ideological clashes: some big, some small, some internal, some through action. Each clash is a kind of fire or illumination that exposes the lengths people are willing to go to prove their convictions.
It’s the trio of performances from Flutur, Stratan, and Andriuta that drive much of Beyond the Hills. Until the finale, the three pinciples are generally understated throughout. There’s the force of religion embodied in Andriuta’s priest, and there’s a representative of the world outside the monastery in Alina. Between the two is Voichita, who knows both forms of being to some degree, both for the better and the worse. The monastery is all about toil for God and ritual and tradition, but at least there is a sisterhood and a kind of family there for her. And of course, there’s always God. Outside the monastery, it would only be Voichita and Alina against the world, with no family and no community. The world outside the monastery is like a world without God.
Mungiu approaches this story of extremes through slow observations and accretions of details. His camera lingers and his shots take time to unfold, allowing the audience to enter into the hermetic world of the Orthodox as well as the indifferent world outside. By letting his camera hold shots in these different settings, I got a sense of the various places in the film and, more importantly, the moods that characters attached to them. We get to experience Alina’s old foster home, for example, and as that scene goes on, I learned everything I needed to know about the dim and loveless life that Alina had endured. It’s also a way of understanding why Voichita is so attached to the monastery. The monastery may be drab and stark, but it is a home.
That may be one of the greatest strengths of Beyond the Hills. Mungiu has the patience to let the story unfold and trusts the audience to be patient with him. It’s as if he’s following a series of chronological facts, and each event depicted is essential to fleshing out the whole of this story and these lives. Some scenes may seem extraneous at first, but they have a way of feeding into other scenes and delivering information about Alina and Voichita. It’s especially important for Voichita, who is constantly pulled between worlds, impulses, and ideologies.
I was also struck by what Alina and Voichita had in the past. The backstory is never explicitly stated, but enough can be inferred through watching the performances. I side with the idea that they were once romantically involved rather than just very close like sisters. The intimacy whenever Alina touches Voichita has a mildly erotic charge; there’s a moment that’s verging on the erotic early on, but it’s cut short by Voichita’s reticence. The sudden coldness Voichita shows when touched suggests her own self-loathing about being gay and her need to repress it. Rather than give in to her passion, she suppresses her sin with prayer. Another extreme, this time involving love: agape and eros.
While the monastic life comes under deep focus and is an easy target for derision, Mungiu isn’t ready to let the world outside of the monastery off the hook. I mentioned the dimness of Alina’s old foster home, and that pervades all other settings outside the monastery as well. While the work in the monastery is practical and about upkeep and nourishment — cleaning, cooking, repairs — the work depicted outside of the monastery is disconnected from essentials in life. It is a place where there is only alienation, and a place where both Alina and Voichita will always be orphans, even together.
In some ways Beyond the Hills is a half-hour too long, but I wonder how the film would function without its factually-based shape. To streamline the storytelling into a more familiar narrative form might actually rob the exorcism scenes of their power — the punctuation to an already harrowing indictment of the Orthodoxy. It may also remove the texture from the rest of the film, particularly when it comes to Alina and Voichita.
I think what I can say with surety is that in his exploration of extremes, Mungiu has crafted a film I want to watch again and study even though it pales compared to his Palme d’Or-winning film 4 Months, 3 weeks, and 2 Days. Beyond the Hills is a film I admire for its craft, for its performances, for its unwillingness to proselytize or lecture but merely observe. It’s a movie that watches with a kind of helpless detachment, maybe like strangers, maybe like God.
Alec Kubas-Meyer: Although Beyond the Hills was inspired by the true story of a girl who was “exorcised” in a remote Romanian church back in 2007, it isn’t a film about exorcism. It’s much better than that. Instead, it’s a film about fear, and the fear that could (somewhat) rationally cause these extremely religious people to believe that an exorcism is necessary. In that way, it is extremely successful. The events it depicts are extremely unfortunate, but it all felt very real. This is helped by the absolutely incredible use of long takes, something that director Cristian Mungiu is well known for. One particular scene which involves nailing some wood together (in the context of something must more intense) really made things feel as though they were happening in real time, and it serves to keep an unreal situation grounded. When I learned that many of the scenes were shot as many as 40 different times, I was completely shocked (that lumber budget must have been crazy).
If you’re a Mungiu fan, you should know that Beyond the Hills is not nearly as good as 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, but given that that is one of the best films ever made, it’s not really a knock against this film. More problematic is the way it attempts to emulate some of what makes 4 Months so brilliant, including a very explicit reference to that film’s amazing dinner scene, except it’s much less powerful the second time around. At 150 minutes, Beyond the Hills runs long, and every one of the last five shots (all of which are extremely long) seems like it could have been an ending. Still, when it works, it works extremely well. The acting is incredible across the board, and I was invested in everyone’s stories. It’s flawed, but absolutely worth your time. 78 — Good