Viewers who are fond of Eastern European miserablism should beat a path to Romanian filmmaker Cristian Mungiu’s (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) latest, Beyond the Hills, because it’s the kind of film that almost certainly isn’t going to be around long. That’s not because the film is bad — it isn’t — but it is the exact opposite of a crowd-pleaser. It is slow and long and drab and dreary. That is not accidental. Anyone who saw Mungiu’s abortion drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, knows the drill. There’s no musical score. Scenes are mostly done in one take. The mood is somber. There will not be a happy ending. And nothing in the film can be called “action-packed.” I freely admit it is not an aesthetic that appeals to me personally. Mungiu has been hailed in some quarters as Bergmanesque, which, I have to say, I don’t see at all. Bergman could certainly be bleak, but his characters were never ciphers in the way Mungiu’s tend to be. I can relate to Bergman’s films. I stare dispassionately at Mungiu’s — but not without a certain fascination.
Beyond the Hills’ undercurrents prove more interesting than its storyline or characters. The story is fairly simple. Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) are two young women who grew up together as best friends — and apparently more — in an orphanage. As adults, their paths have diverged. Alina went out into the world, finding some kind of menial labor in Germany, while Voichita entered an Orthodox convent that might have been viewed as abnormally strict and superstitious 100 years ago. The film opens with Alina returning to Romania to reclaim her friend and her friendship. But Voichita’s new-found faith intervenes. The acceptance of God has effectively rendered her emotionless on any other level — and while the extent of their previous physical relationship is never stated, Voichita makes it clear that they will no longer share a bed. With things not going her way, Alina sinks into increasingly irrational behavior until it’s finally — and tragically — decided that she’s possessed.
In an enclosed community with a catalogue of 464 possible sins that’s lorded over by a single inflexible priest (Valeriu Andriuta), it’s not hard to see how that diagnosis might happen. At the same time, Alina is hardly blameless. Her fixation on Voichita is as single-minded as Voichita’s fixation on God. Neither woman seems to have any depth whatsoever and each appears incapable of thinking in any terms other than complete obsession over a single thing. Both are victims of strong beliefs that involve no rational thought. That — more than anything — is what makes the film rarely less than fascinating. Whether that makes Beyond the Hills entertaining is a separate question — and a wholly subjective one.
Mungiu has claimed the film is about the indifference of Romanian society. That may be true, but it’s hard to believe the little world in which Beyond the Hills exists is a reasonable barometer of an entire country. There are certainly aspects of the film to which just about anyone can relate. I doubt, for example, that there is anyone who has not felt the cold stab of alienation that occurs when someone we thought we knew takes up a consuming new direction in terms of religion (or politics, come to that). In that regard, there’s a certain universal quality to the film. However, the characters are so undefined, uncharismatic and even unlikable that it’s hard to actually relate to them. As I noted, this isn’t a bad movie — and its certainly interesting to see an exorcism that isn’t shown in horror movie terms — but it is a movie with limited appeal. Not Rated, but contains adult themes, language and some nudity.
Starts Friday at Carolina Cinemas