Cristian Mungiu is possibly the most distinctive and intriguing young auteur working today. The Romanian writer and director was behind 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, my favourite film of the 21st Century so far. Mungiu proves with his latest film Beyond the Hills that his vision is singular and uncompromising. His acumen is unique, consistently examining the specificities and ambiguities of female friendships within overarching socio-religious paradigms in most of his films. He does so with a perspicacious style involving naturalistic dialogue, hand-held back-to-the-camera shots and lengthy takes that make Bela Tarr look like Paul Greengrass.
Mungiu is a raw filmmaker, and his films play out like documentaries because of his deliberately slow pace and lingering cinematography. He captures the dull nuances that make everyday existence so monotonous and futile, and in each of his films, Mungiu suggests that without someone sturdy to rely on, our human agency is stripped. Neither 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days nor Beyond the Hills are hopeful films, but they do evince this idea differently. 4 Months is, at times, about the redeeming powers of friendship, depicting one woman’s elongated attempts to get an abortion for her pregnant friend in 1980s communist Romania. Beyond the Hills is the next logical step from 4 Months, replacing the dedicated and enriching relationship between the two women in 4 Months with a more nihilistic perception of friendship: what if your best friend was more concerned with sycophantically upholding an outdated paradigm than protecting your own safety? What if you completely rely on your one friend, but they now feel ambivalent towards you?
While 4 Months takes place thirty years ago, Beyond the Hills takes place in the present day, allegorising the lingering effects of Romanian authoritarianism in the 21st Century through a metaphoric monastery. Despite taking place in contemporary society, Mungiu’s mise-en-scene largely ignores the tropes of today’s technological, scientific world, instead evoking the ambience of a medieval European village. The film is set in a strict monastery far removed from the cityscape, with archaic, rustically simplistic buildings – apart from the odd kitchen utensil, there are few symbols of the modern world in the film. The film’s colour palette is drab, cold and muted, the focus soft and the lighting dimly naturalistic, mirroring the characters’ antiquated reliance on oil lamps for light and fire for heat.
The film’s opening sequence symbolises this. Alina (Cristina Flutur), an aesthetic woman who has been working as a barmaid in Germany, travels on a train to an isolated Orthodox convent – an encapsulation of her transition from modernity to a form of Romanian Amishness. Her childhood friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is now a nun at this monastery, and Alina could no longer endure her separation from Voichita. Alina pleads Voichita to flee back to Germany with her. However, Voichita is now completely (and blindly) dedicated to the church. She compromises her friendship with Alina by asking the monastery’s fanatical priest to allow Alina to stay with her at the convent until she becomes more emotionally stable. Slowly, Alina becomes very physically and psychologically ill, presumably because of her unfulfilled obsession with Voichita. However, the convent’s priest and nuns believe she has been possessed by a demon. Alina, with her modern costumes, is clearly an outsider.
Beyond the Hills, much like 4 Months, is about the yielding of civil liberties to a greater social norm. Mungiu is an exquisite filmmaker, scrutinising the presence of paradigmatic institutions in extraordinarily subtle ways. Mungiu’s characters are not particularly likeable; Alina is self-absorbed, taciturn and volatile, while Voichita is myopic, naive and impersonal. Yet they are gut-wrenchingly realistic, as Mungiu exercises a restrained detachment from the film’s events. He depicts his characters with precise objectivity. Mungiu refrains from any nondiegetic music or grandiose speechifying moments, and consequently, our sympathies and alignments vacillate throughout the film. While Alina is certainly tragic due to her psychological state, should she really be imposing herself on Voichita by forcing her to abandon her new life?
The insinuation throughout the film is that Voichita and Alina were once lesbian lovers, but while Alina wants to see this love blossom, Voichita has discovered a new, albeit subservient, love – religious orthodoxy. Their relationship is fuelled by an unfulfilled infatuation. In this regard, the film is most comparable to Powell and Pressburger’s masterful Black Narcissus. Stratan and Flutur both give wonderfully tempered and restrained performances, showing their characters’ emotions through their silence rather than their words.
We are prompted to consider whether Voichita and Alina could feasibly connect with other in the same symbiotic way they used to. Their conceptions of family are vastly different. For Voichita, her fellow nuns are her family, whilst for Alina it is her failed foster parents – a microcosm of Alina’s inability to assimilate into whatever micro-society she enters. Voichita is able to move on from the past, whereas Alina is inextricably linked to it, even being brought back to live with her former foster family as an adult. In one scene, Voichita begins to read out each of the 400 actions that this particular sect of the Romanian Orthodox Church decrees as sinful. Alina watches in silence. The scene is comical in its reserved absurdity, as we are prompted to compare our contemporary values with the arcane values of the church – menstruation is considered a sin.
Despite their actions, Mungiu does not judge any of his characters. The priest claims to be 32, but he looks at least twenty years older; to me, this was a sly subversion of Max von Sydow’s elderly appearance in The Exorcist even though von Sydow was only in his forties when The Exorcist was made. A lesser filmmaker would have made the hardened and stern priest completely antagonistic. However, his efforts to help Alina are, to him at least, well-meaning – even if they have terrible consequences. Beyond the Hills is not necessarily an unequivocal denunciation of religious fanaticism. Instead, it is an expose of how all forms of fanaticism can create a blinkered perception of the world; how mental illness is still ghettoised and maltreated by fanatical institutions; and, ultimately, how such institutions force well-meaning people to commit unjust acts.
As the film’s (not to be spoiled) climax attests to, all the characters are partially to blame for what happens to Alina and yet everyone is partially innocent – a far more bleak and intangible conclusion than if we could easily identify one character as the ‘villain’. Though superficially helping Voichita to move on from her lascivious, orphaned past, her blind yet not entirely convinced adherence to Christian dogma fosters her indifference to Alina’s (admittedly selfish) needs. The film is about the conflict between apathy and passion, between sacrifice and selfishness, and how the lines between each dichotomy are inherently blurred.
Beyond the Hills is a very long film. The last half-hour of the film is particularly protracted, and should have been reduced. Throughout the film, there are entire scenes made up of one long close-up on Voichita’s face. Other scenes are devoted exclusively to tracking, back-to-the-camera shots of the nuns walking around the monastery, further emphasising the film’s voyeuristic and suspenseful gaze into the nuns’ lives.
Beyond the Hills reminded me of something the director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, director of the amazing Once Upon in Anatolia, said about ‘boring’ the audience. “The films that bored me the most in the past became my favourite movies later on. So I don’t care about boring the audience. Sometimes, I really want to bore them because out of boredom might come a miracle, maybe days later, maybe years, when they see the film again”, said Ceylan. Underneath Beyond the Hills’ deliberate pace is a sincere and realistic depiction of the complexities of feminine relationships, executed with extraordinarily picturesque cinematography of the rolling Romanian hills and the characters’ weathered weariness.
The film’s final scene takes place in the nearest city to the monastery – Bucharest presumably. The last shot is a lengthy, static medium-shot of windscreen wipers removing the sordid mud from a van’s windscreen. With this climax, Mungiu implies the unpleasantness of both 4 Months’ urban ugliness and Beyond the Hills’ rural isolation. Well then, Mr Mungiu, where are supposed to live in your bleak vision of the world?