BEYOND THE HILLS (2013, Romania)
SUNDAY 16 November 10.00 am
TUESDAY 18 November 8.15 pm
RUNNING TIME 152 minutes
Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) grew up together in an orphanage. At 19, Alina was taken in by a foster family and later decided to go and work in Germany, while Voichita found refuge in an Orthodox monastery and became a nun - there she found not only God but the family she'd never had. Feeling sick and estranged, Alina strives to get Voichita back in her life, and visits the monastery in order to convince her childhood friend to leave the Church. Voichita asks permission to leave the monastery temporarily, but the Priest (Valeriu Andriuta) is firm: once you have taken the path of Christ, there is no going back. She starts fighting with all her strength to get Voichita back and soon the inhabitants of the monastery start to suspect something evil is driving Alina.
REVIEW BY ANDREW L. URBAN
Economically yet powerfully capturing the suffocating atmosphere of the orthodox community of the priest and the nuns in a Moldovian village, using a steady eye and a steady camera (as distinct from steadycam), Cristian Mungiu immerses us in the time and place to prepare us for this extraordinary story. Not that you'd guess at first, as the two young women re-establish their long and strong childhood friendship at an orphanage, after Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) has joined an orthodox order - the New Hills Monastery led by a religious Father (Valeriu Andriuta) and a Mother (Dana Tapalaga) - and Alina (Cristina Flutur) finds work in Germany. The low key, minimalist tone and the rather banal banter between them, hardly emotionally stirring, creates a mood of calm.
In one quiet exchange (most of the conversations are in hushed tones), Alina asks if Voichita still loves her; the answer is yes but it's different. She has met someone else ... God. From that moment, the tone changes as Alina becomes agitated and violent, and needs to be restrained in what appears to be a fit. Taken to and later released from hospital, Alina is allowed to stay with her friend in the monastery - reluctantly and under observation, subject to restrictions.
The Father tries to help by getting Alina to tick off any of her sins in a confessional manner, from his list of 464 sins; some she may not even know. Mungiu builds his film slowly, quietly, the tension rising imperceptibly, thanks to simple cinematic choices, such as where to place the camera and what not to show. It's so gentle and unhysterical, the farming environment so bucolic, we are lulled into feeling sedate - if a little uneasy. The simple daily tasks and prayers take on a sense of impending doom, in the form of Alina's next potential outburst.
Evidently fascinated by the non-fiction works of Romanian writer and broadcaster Tatiana Niculescu, Mungiu has taken the written word and turned it into gripping cinema. According to the author's two books, the events depicted are based on a true story. And that makes the film a striking and superbly made spine tingling mystery - with exceptional performances (the two leads, Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur shared the Best Actress award at Cannes, 2012) and the strangest, unlikeliest of endings.
REVIEW BY LOUISE KELLER
The use of Brahms's haunting Cradle song in the closing credits places a fitting full stop in this beguiling drama in which inner conflict is countered by the epitome of calm. Inspired by real events and set for the most part in a Romanian monastery, filmmaker Cristian Mungiu's tale is about good intentions and the ideals of goodness in an unforgiving world of strictures. While it may be overlong at 150 minutes, Beyond The Hills is mesmerising cinema, made all the more watchable by the colour-stripped setting, creating an ambience in line with the essence of the tale.
The devastated expression on the face of Alina (Cristina Flutur) as she arrives from Germany and tightly embraces Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) signals the angst she is suffering. The contrast between the two women could not be greater. They were close once, in their younger years at the orphanage and the former lesbian relationship between them has now been neutered by Voichita's discovery of God. While Alina is desperately searching to find meaning in her life, Voichita, a devout young nun who lives at the local monastery, clearly has chosen her path in life. “The man who leaves is not the same when he returns” is the observation the priest quotes to Voichita, when she asks permission to accompany Alina back to Germany for a short time.
Alina is the catalyst that changes everything but first we get a sense of the great tranquillity in the monastery and the lifestyle of the nuns who live there. The accent is on dialogue, delivered leisurely - be it in the kitchen preparing food or doing chores in the barren conditions in which they live. The disturbance that ensues by Alina's presence - from her attempted suicide and destructive behaviour prompts the dedicated nuns to do their utmost to save her, believing that if she confesses her sins and relinquishes her material possessions, she will find redemption.
The extreme lengths to which the peace-loving nuns go to help the disturbed girl is shocking, including binding, gagging her and tying her to a cross in a bid to "cast out the evil". The performances are strong, with both Flutur and Stratan superb in the central roles. The serenity that Stratan depicts is especially potent and the contrasts impact profoundly. The winter white backdrop in the final reel is especially effective and the film's conclusion is one that will prompt much discussion.