This is the second time now writer/director Cristian Mungiu has taken material that sounded dreadful on paper and fashioned it into a near masterpiece. The first time was in the blistering 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 days which was shorthandedly referred to as the Romanian abortion movie. It’s an accurate label that does the film no justice. And now Mungiu has made the Romanian Orthodox nuns movie. I know a 150 minute foreign film on this subject sounds deathly dull like being forced to eat your vegetables (and I hate vegetables). I honestly didn’t really want to watch it, but I’m more than happy I did.
Typically I’d suggest with a film like this that you have to be patient with it and let it reveal itself to you. This is true of other methodical foreign slow burns like The Turin Horse or Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. However, I don’t think the same holds for Beyond the Hills. It features similar long takes and static shots, though not quite as drawn out. But I feel like the initial set-up in this film is immediately captivating and therefore patience is not needed. The film begins with a young nun, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) picking up her estranged friend, Alina (Cristina Flutur) from the train station. When Alina carelessly walks in front of a passing train to reach Voichita you know right away that something is amiss. From there we’re introduced to the monastery perfectly tucked away just outside the city. Background information on the convent as well as Alina and Voichita’s relationship is served up bit by bit. Every scene, even those with minor characters, is loaded with tantalizing insights.
Though it’s not explicit, Alina and Voichita most likely were lovers and Alina has hopes of running away with Voichita. Voichita is torn between her feelings for Alina and her new life of worship. But this is not a forbidden tale of love. Once denied, Alina becomes erratic and her behavior grows increasingly strange. Things spiral so quickly and easily out of control from here that you’re not sure what to think when the nuns tie Alina down to a plank of wood. See, from one perspective, Alina is sick and possibly possessed. One might also conclude that she’s nothing more than a jealous lover. I found myself wavering between the two. It’s what makes the tie-up scene so riveting. One second I’m rooting for the nuns, but then I mentally step back and recognize how absurd the nun’s efforts are. For its part, the film offers no obvious answers.
The momentum of the picture is astounding. It’s not speedy but things escalate remarkably. The two first time actresses are great finds (They shared best actress at last year’s Cannes festival). Both do a tremendous job of never revealing too much. This adds another layer of innocent ambiguity that never allows for straightforward interpretation. The static camera work I mentioned before is deceptively brilliant. There’s a power to the framing of each shot. All those seeking close-ups will find no refuge here. Instead, Mungiu plays with foreground and background and crowding the edge of the frame. It’s rich and full of dimension and menace.
The assured screenplay (Which also won a prize at Cannes) is full of similarly common but potent dialogue. Only by the film’s end do lines like “I’m all for tolerance, within reason” become illuminating pieces of the puzzle. In this world, just out of reach of our own, you can see what you want to see. One man’s plank of wood is another man’s cross. What you think of as being helpful someone else could feel a twist of the knife. One man’s chilling exorcist movie is also this man’s haunting damnation of casting away free thought. I think the right choice would be to see this movie.