Title: BEYOND THE HILLS (Dupa dealuri)
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Screenwriter: Cristian Mungiu, Inspired by Tatiana Niculescu Bran’s nonfiction novels
Cast: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 2/20/13
Opens: March 8, 2013
In the production notes, writer-director Cristian Mungiu states that his over-riding theme in creating “Beyond the Hills” is to show the indifference of Romanian society. Whereas the Eastern Orthodox Church, which is on display in perhaps its least flamboyant location and design, declares that there are 464 sins of which humankind may be guilty, the director’s belief that the greatest sin of all, that of indifference, is not even mentioned. He is determined to prove this with his film. Nonetheless, based on the decisions—some irrational, others caring—of the priest, whose orders are followed strictly by the nuns under his command in a remote chapel—Mungiu’s theme does not come across as clearly as he might have liked. Nor do we get the idea that the chapel is Romanian society writ small. The crazed woman who is taken under the church’s wing may have received improper treatment by the religious order One may think that some alternative treatment could have been better for her, one not within the rigid framework of the order, but indifference is not on display.
Mungiu, whose more interesting “4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days” highlights the cruelty of a Romanian society that mandates a death sentence for performing abortions, showing the hoops through which a woman with a five-months’ pregnancy must jump, here graphically indulges another woman’s virtually operatic melancholy. Alina (Cristina Flutur), a character whose name reflects that of the director’s real-life sister Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (who is not coincidentally a major Romanian political analyst), has been morose ever since her orphanage roommate Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), with whom she implicitly enjoyed a Sapphic affection, left her in the lurch by hitching up with a remote church as a nun. Alina left the orphanage and her foster parents for a job in Germany as a waitress in a bar but has returned to try to convince her best friend to shed her black, vampiric garb and return with her to the West. But the heavily bearded priest known as Papa or Father (Valeriu Andriuta) refuses to allow even a short respite because, he states, the West has lost its spiritual soul—men marrying men, women marrying women, etc., insisting that without God, people will never find peace. He may have a point since Alina, believed by the priest and the nuns to have found the Devil instead, has frequent bouts of violent behavior against the folks who have cared enough about her to let her remain for a while as a guest.
Visuals are often reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman, featuring the nuns in their black attire pacing about the grounds doing menial tasks and without the benefits of running water or electricity. They look like refugees from “The Seventh Seal” or, given the frosty winter weather perhaps “Winter Light.” Photographer Oleg Mutu bathes the screen in a big chill of blues and browns, the closeups and long takes of the characters showing a director’s skillful attention detail right down to the muddy brown splotch that splashes across the windshield of a van in the final moments.
The easiest impression one may get from the depictions of the chapel is of a zombie-like crew of black-robed women slavishly following the directives of a strict, but not unkind paterfamilias. But Mungiu is not making a facile criticism of religion as it is organized in a post-Ceaucecu Romania since, after all, the members of the hierarchy have the best of intentions. Perhaps they could have done other than tie up the frequently violent Alina, psychologically harmed by her abandonment to an orphanage (though she was transferred to caring foster parents) and more important by her perceived jilting from her bosom friend.
While Mungiu—who won the prize at Cannes for Best Screenplay at Cannes and whose film was shortlisted for a Best Foreign Movie Oscar—is intent on building up to Alina’s outbursts by spending considerable time depicting the daily lives of the faithful, he could have cut a half hour from the mundane dialogue to bring the film in at two hours. “Beyond the Hills” is an arty version of “The Exorcist,” downplaying the pea soup in favor of the only cautiously melodramatic. Commercial prospect appear not particularly optimistic but the two and one-hour film bears much to reward the patient, the educated, and the tolerant. Ensemble acting is first-rate for a film that was inspired by an actual exorcism that took place in 2005 and described in the oxymoronic non-fiction novel of Tatiana Niculescu Bran, In Tara lui Dumnezeu.
Unrated. 152 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B-
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B