Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) returns with Beyond The Hills, a dark and sophisticated drama following two women in the bleak and desolated Romanian landscape. The film played at Cannes Film Festival last year, where Mungiu won Best Screenplay and the two lead actresses, jointly won Best Actress. Beyond The Hills is based upon the writing of Tatiana Niculescu Bran, who documented the story of a young member in a monastery who died after an exorcism ritual in 2005. It may not be for everyone and it fits very differently into our movie landscape coming from Romania, but if you push yourself towards the end, it really is worth it.
Virtually wholly set on a small plot of land, where the village church sits and where the Priest (scarily played by Valeriu Andriuţă) lives with the Mother Superior (Dana Tapalagă) and the rest of the nuns, one really does get the feeling of claustrophobia and alienation pretty early on.
The film starts with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), searching out her childhood friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) in a large crowd. Nothing is known of these two women, but as we are slowly introduced to them, we learn they have known each other since they were younger and lived in an orphanage together. Alina has come to visit her friend, who now is part of the nunnery by the church and bring her back to Germany where they can live happily together. When Voichita figures out the plan, she is quick to suggest that Alina should come and join her in Romania instead. Very early on, we are introduced to the themes of isolation, betrayal and temptation; ideas, which have reoccured throughout religious dramas virtually since their inception. We understand pretty quickly Alina’s suspicions of everyone around her, and that she believes Voichita would have a better life with her, away from this closed, small area, which runs concurrently to the real world.
For the first half of Beyond The Hills, we see this constant tension of the girls trying to persuade one another that their way of life is better. We also are given small glimpses into the lonely and quiet lives, that both women lead. Alina is alone in Germany, and the audience see that she shows signs of depression whereas Voichita is forced to live a solitary life surrounded by others doing the same as her; she is a slave to God and in turn, the Priest that watches the entire compound. Voichita finds it more and more difficult as the film goes on, to find reasons why her way of life is better and more peaceful, but she cannot bring herself to pull away from this life either, in a sort of Stockholm Syndrome situation. She has a home, is fed and believes that she is looked after by the Priest and God; when one has belief so strong, nothing can really get in it’s way.
As Alina pulls harder and harder, you think she is going to give in several times throughout when she decides to join the church and their beliefs, but at every turn she finds a reason to pull away and confront the Priest for the controlling man he really is. She wants to save her friend, or at least, that is how she sees it. She believes that she is the only one that can really see the truth and therefore it is upon her to prove it otherwise. In scenes of drama, she confronts the Priest and accuses him of raping the women and of preaching about false idols who will, at the end of the day, do nothing for those that prayer to them. Unfortunately, whatever your religious beliefs, it’s human nature to try and save the hand, which is looking after you and Alina is alone in her beliefs compared with the nuns around her. Voichita finds herself constantly in the middle of her religion and her friend, and tries to make everyone happy. When Alina ultimately turns violent and fiery (mind the pun), the Priest accuses her of having the devil inside of her. She must be constrained and then prayed for to expel the devil from inside, in the hope she will then find peace. This ends with them performing an exorcism ritual on Alina before climbing to the thrilling and horrifying ending.
Throughout the film, there is also a really interesting lesbian undertone between the two main women, who have known each other throughout most of their lives. There are moments when their friendship looks more like love, and those moments of weakness when they are giving into each other are some of the most powerful because that is when Voichita realises she must decide once and for all between her friend and her religion. There is a scene in the first quarter, where Voichita is rubbing some sort of ointment onto Alina and I personally felt some sort of sexual tension between the two women, but this is one of the few moments when they are alone together and they can just be who they really are. It is one of those sweet, intimate times, where their innocence from childhood comes out and they can touch each other without feeling judged. When Alina turns over and reveals her breasts, Voichita becomes uncomfortable and turns away to prayer; she moves from one intimacy to another.
What I loved most about Beyond The Hills, were the delicate ways in which it was dissecting religion and religious convictions that so many hold true to themselves. Without becoming judgmental about the characters and their surroundings, the film was very clever in the ways that it made the Priest and the nuns that follow him, become so caught up in their beliefs that they couldn’t understand for one moment that there existed a world outside of their own and as soon as someone from the outside was trying to invade, they swarmed upon her like an bacteria. There is a sequence when Alina is tied down and restrained violently by the group of nuns before her exorcism, and this was one of the most high octane and thrilling scenes of the film. These women are so caught up in what they have been told to believe, that anything else seems ridiculous and they would go to such extremes to preserve their truth.
The cinematographer, Oleg Mutu, has done a beautiful job on Beyond The Hills, where every scene is dark and filled with the emotions of the characters. The world looks bleak and although the church is meant to be worshipping a God who will look after the characters and bring them into the light, the look of the scenes says something very different. It does made it a little difficult to watch the film in parts, especially due to it’s length, but you forgive that when you get to the end and realise that the many little climaxes of the piece are working towards something far larger and meaningful.
Beyond The Hills is one of the most unique and innovative religious dramas to have come along in a while, showcasing what happens when you bring together strong acting talent, a delicately structured script and an intriguing look to each and every scene. Making the point that sometimes, what you believe is not always the best truth, it is certainly not one for everyone but if you are interested, make sure you don’t miss out.