Catching Up with the Classics: BEYOND THE HILLS (2012)

Exploring Cristian Mungiu’s bewitching battle between faith and love

Film 54 of 115: BEYOND THE HILLS (2012)
While this ongoing project is called “Catching Up with the Classics,” 2012’s Beyond the Hills is the newest film included in my roster. While I’m drawing heavily from blindspots that I feel are established in a classic film canon, it’s foolhardy for me to believe that cinema’s best years are already behind us. Beyond the Hills has been heralded as an important entry in the current Romanian New Wave, and as a renewed fan of director Cristian Mungiu’s previous 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, I felt it deserved a spot among the 115 films included on my journey.

Beyond the Hills follows Alina and Voichița, two women who grew up together (and perhaps more) in a Romanian orphanage, only to take wildly diverging paths as they reached adulthood. Alina pursued better jobs in Germany; Voichița, abandoned by her best friend, sought refuge in a new, isolated convent on the edge of their provincial village. Years later, Alina returns to rescue Voichița with a promised job on a German cruise ship. However, Alina quickly realizes Voichița’s completely devoted herself to convent life, and to the demanding Priest who’s seemingly cast a spell over the nuns in his charge. An emotional and spiritual war of attrition follows between the secular and orthodox forces in Voichița’s life — one that proves to have devastating consequences for all involved.

Much like how I went into Mungiu’s previous feature, I had only the basic knowledge of Beyond the Hills’ premise: a woman attempts to liberate her childhood ex-lover from a Romanian convent. Like 4 Months… and its day-long glimpse into the lives of two women in the midst of the chaotic Ceaușescu regime, Beyond the Hills’ story expands far beyond this logline. Here, Mungiu extends his themes to Romania’s present, where little appears to have changed. Surrounded by crumbling infrastructure, the choices presented to the women of Beyond the Hills are few and far between. They can flee the country in search of jobs, usually service-based, in the rest of the Eurozone. As an exasperated doctor dramatizes, they can remain mired in a society ill-equipped to handle the problems facing it. Lastly, as with the women of the convent, they can flee society in general. This choice is appealing to most — basic human needs are met, with an added spiritual fulfillment — but life in the convent is marked by a strict obedience of Orthodox biblical teaching and the patriarchy that administers it.

Mungiu allows these complex issues to arise through his characters’ organic interactions with the world around them. Periodic excursions to the nearby town give fleeting glimpses into a world of barely-staffed government buildings and decaying orphanages. Church services allow parishioners to delve into personal stories of cancer cured through faith alone, struggles to find work, and other climactic events that have otherwise become part of daily life. The nuns find themselves pulled towards the outside world as well — as one nun debates whether or not to return to her abusive husband. As much as the priest wants to ensure the convent’s isolation from society’s corrupting influences, his efforts prove increasingly dubious. Alina’s arrival brings this brewing conflict to the fore, as an outsider who immediately questions the rigorous norms of the church.

Mungiu plants the seeds of this conflict throughout the film’s first half in the look and design of Beyond the Hills. Mungiu’s camera is never still; each sequence’s roaming, endless shots keep the characters locked in focus, preventing every attempt to escape the frame. Meticulously-detailed sets also disappear from view as quickly as they arrive; fellow victims of the frenzied situational whirlwinds these women become trapped in day after day. As such, Beyond the Hills creates an endlessly-intertwined link between the inner and outer lives of its characters — one where, despite their best efforts, chaos becomes a common denominator.

What kept me anchored throughout Beyond the Hills were Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur’s performances as Voichița and Alina. In keeping with director Mungiu’s organic, reserved approach, much of Voichița and Alina’s relationship is conveyed through body language as much as it is through direct conflict. From the film’s opening on, Alina’s drive for closeness, and Voichița’s opposing piety is frustratingly palpable — from deliberate averted gazes to avoiding someone’s touch like an oncoming bullet. As the film goes on, this internal tension pivots in unexpected directions, turning Voichița’s deliberate lack of connection into a litmus test for how long one can allow another person to endure suffering. Beyond the Hills is one of those rare films where the protagonist feels as removed from the film’s central conflict as they are wholly part of it — which made for an unusually engaging watch.

I had no idea that the film was based on real events, which were documented in two non-fiction novels by former BBC reporter Tatiana Niculescu Bran. What’s more, that Niculescu Bran’s second novel seemed obligatory in addressing the further complexities of the real-life situation rather than oversimplify the incidents in a demonization of Romanian Orthodox faith. This maturity extends into Mungiu’s film; Voichița’s detachment feeds into a refreshing refusal to wholly persecute the actions of its characters. Yes, Valeriu Andriuţă’s priest remains an imposing, hypocritically devout figure throughout the film, and Dana Tapalaga’s Mother Superior is overly willing to do whatever it takes to stay in his and the Lord’s favor (as are the rest of the nuns). But Mungiu’s depiction of their devotion, while posited as the source of the film’s later atrocities, comes from an equally earnest and sincere place. There is as much joy — however fleeting — between Alina, Voichița, and the convent as there is terror. While antagonistic actions occur, of which they are condemned, Mungiu carefully chooses not to depict any of his characters as villains.

Rather, the orthodox and secular worlds of Beyond the Hills exist in a tragically symbiotic relationship with each other. A world without faith seems doomed to vice and ruin; a world with too much faith leads to ignorant, fatal consequences. A fear of knowledge pervades the film — not in broadening one’s horizons, but in acknowledging the limits of one’s own understanding. Early on, the priest acknowledges the holy sites he wishes he could visit, but refuses to step foot in the amorphous “West,” which has lost the true path. It’s this same admonishment of potential corruption that in turn corrupts himself and those who follow him — which Alina wholly understands and rebels against. It’s in the acknowledgment of this chaotic ouroboros that Voichița realizes how vital her escape from this life really is and finally takes action. It’s only fitting that the moment comes when it may be too late for them all.

Much like his previous feature, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills is a disturbing yet riveting look at how society shapes our beliefs and actions, anchored by two equally powerful performances by its lead actresses.

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