The way to get people to see the Romanian film Beyond the Hills would be to market it as a traditional exorcism movie. Cut the trailer to make it look like a dark and chilling thriller about an impious girl who visits a rustic monastery and the priest and nuns begin to suspect there’s an evil lurking inside of her that manifests itself through odd behavior, anger and violent outbursts. Then suggest the priest must perform one of those age-old rituals to save the girl and bring her peace, which involves tying her to a wooden cross.
Movie Review: Beyond the Hills
By Matthew Huntley
March 5, 2013
Yes, that would be the way to get people to see Beyond the Hills, but that’s not why they should see it. The reason to see the film is not for all the usual sensational reasons, but for the questions it proposes about important topics like free will, ethical and moral religious practices, tolerance of alternative lifestyles, truth, and of course, love. The movie is somehow able to be about all of these things, and powerfully so. It is often frustrating to watch, but in a good way, because it invokes reactions and conversations about subjects that aren’t so clear cut and about which everyone has an opinion.
Still there are other reasons to see it, the first being that it’s a very good movie, one that’s well directed, acted and full of penetrating locations and photography that leave their mark on the viewer. If the movie has a flaw, it’s that it’s too long, with too many scenes that feel redundant with those before them. Writer-director Cristian Mungiu is perhaps nervous that all of his points won’t get across and therefore feels like he must present them to us over and over again, lest we miss them. Even though there is not a single bad scene in the movie, one of the keys to good storytelling is brevity and knowing that when a certain point or feeling is established, it’s important to move on and not allow the audience too much time to reflect on it during the film. Give them just enough so they can take it with them and think about it afterward. The film’s constant lingering and repetition also made it frustrating, but not in as good a way as its subject matter.
In modern-day Romania, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is a nun in an isolated monastery that’s situated high up in the hills overlooking a cold and grim city. The distance between the monastery and the rest of the world sort of leaves it in a position to operate according to its own laws and rules, a notion that becomes more evident as the film progresses and then finally during the tragic ending. When it opens, Voichita, who’s just shy of 30, greets her lifelong friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) at the train station. The two first met when they were little girls at the local orphanage and it’s apparent their relationship was, at one point, romantic as well as friendly, though this is never made explicit.
Alina is clearly happier to see her friend than Voichita, who has since devoted her life to God and all the restrictions and disciplines of Christian Orthodoxy. She adheres to this lifestyle, perhaps, we suspect, out of guilt and as a mode of survival. To practice her religion guarantees Voichita a place in the world, along with such amenities as food and shelter. But Alina sees that Voichita is afraid of living and it saddens her to think their love was sacrificed. She’s just returned from Germany, which is considered by members of the monastery, especially its conservative priest (Valeriu Andriuta), to be just another materialistic place in the world that has strayed from God’s love and is full of sin. She feels just as turned away by the other nuns and suspects Voichita has been manipulated or defiled in some way. Alina also grows wary of what’s behind the altar in the church and whether the priest is somehow steering the nuns with an icon that he’s told them exists but really doesn’t.
Gradually, Alina becomes more distraught and agitated and even attempts suicide. The nuns, led by Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga), take her to the local hospital, where she’s tied up for her own safety and practically led to believe she hears voices by the on-staff doctor. Given her reactionary and destructive behavior, the priest and nuns begin to think she may be possessed by a demon and it’s up to them to save her.
Now if this was a standard Hollywood genre picture, the story behind Beyond the Hills might have taken a few expected avenues: a) turn into an sensational exorcism movie with all the usual bells and whistles: loud effects, music crescendos, lights blinking on and off, things falling over, eyes turning black, bodies contorting, etc. - you know the drill; b) Alina’s accusations against the priest and nuns turn out to be true and the movie takes the easy opportunity to undermine the validity and intentions of Christian Orthodoxy; c) Alina and Voichita engage in a forbidden, passionate love affair they try to keep secret from the church.
The movie doesn’t take any of these directions and instead holds steady as a straight, involving and original story about what real people might actually do in the characters’ situation. There is not one false note in it and we accept everything that happens as credible because Mungiu is so genuine and unaffected in his execution. We never feel like we’re being manipulated or asked to judge the characters for their behavior because we believe they’re acting according to their natures and not the mechanics of a fabricated plot. This approach makes the material, which is inspired by based-on-true-story books written by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, all the more effective and hard-hitting. It’s underscored by the cinematography, production and sound design, which collectively work together to create a cold, harsh and brutal environment. This is one of the most effectively unattractive places you’d ever want to go and it makes us all the more empathetic (and sympathetic) to the characters.
The note on which the movie ends is near perfect and reiterates Mungiu’s desire for truth and authenticity over wrought, exaggerated fiction. It proposes questions that leave viewers in engaged thought because it asks them to consider what people are to do when their personal and religious values conflict with societal norms. Are they just supposed to abandon them? These are ideals they devote their entire lives to, and if they do it without hurting anyone, what should be expected of them when external circumstances force them to make a choice between their personal convictions and the rest of the world’s rules? The answer is not so straightforward.
Beyond the Hills is a raw, brave and moving film, and even though its unnecessarily long runtime slows down its effect as you watch it, its lasting effects remain powerful and relevant well after. Here is a movie that asks us to look beyond our own beliefs and ideals and remember there are others. More films should strive to be this challenging.