Beyond the Hills is not a film that’s easy to like, nor does it try to be. Set in a strict monastery whose stern equilibrium is tragically disturbed when one of the nuns welcomes a friend in distress, and unfolding, accordingly, at an ascetically deliberate pace in a string of long takes, not unlike a penitent rosary, it is a film with which few if any would expect to feel immediate kinship. The very arduousness of Cristian Mungiu’s film, on the other hand—alongside its explicit tackling of such fundamental themes as good and evil, love and faith, and the fatal errors of organized religion—might have made Beyond the Hills a quintessentially praiseworthy festival film: weighty in intent, unfamiliar enough in setting, rigorously masterful in execution. But the winner of this year’s best screenplay prize, as well as a shared best actress award for its two leads, Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, is in fact an altogether more perplexing object.
Mungiu succeeds in making his somewhat alien and demanding material fascinating (though it remains, intentionally for sure, a fairly trying experience) and even engaging (although none of the characters, especially not the eventual victim, ever manages to claim our undivided sympathy). But what is remarkable about Beyond the Hills and the unexpected interrogations it awakens is the lingering sense of doubt it leaves you with. Not merely as to the virtues of organized religion—that would be too simple—but just as much the facile condemnation of it. The film is decidedly not an ode to monastic life. It is no Of Gods and Men (to begin with, Mungiu’s gaze, unlike Xavier Beauvois’s, remains external). But neither is it, despite initial suggestions, a negative counterweight to Beauvois’s film. It is a work that forces you into the not entirely pleasant yet oddly rewarding territory of moral uncertainty.
Presenting the film, Mungiu said he hoped viewers would avoid the temptation to compare it to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. There are however, as even he concedes, undeniable parallels to be drawn with the film that won him the Palme d’Or in 2007. Both are inspired by actual events and involve the collision between two close young women and a strong male authority figure within the stultifying framework of an unrelenting system. In 4 Weeks this figure was a black-market abortionist in the twilight of Ceausescu’s Communist regime. Here he is a former power-plant worker turned uncompromising priest in a Romanian Orthodox Church monastery.
To a certain extent, the similarities end there. Neither the social system nor the abortionist of 4 Weeks had much in the way of redeeming qualities. The film offered a powerfully rendered but nonetheless rather straightforward tale. In Beyond the Hills, Mungiu’s take on a modern-day exorcism gone wrong is a more complicated affair, and the priest at the heart of it not quite as detestable as we might want him to be.
He does appear harsh, at first, toward the rebellious but brittle Alina (Flutur) who turns up at the monastery to visit her friend Voichita (Stratan) in an effort to convince her to leave with her for Germany. The two girls shared a childhood at the local orphanage, the kind of scarring experience that forges strong bonds and, in this case, a passionate form of love. While the more subdued, submissive Voichita has chosen to repress this love through the pious routines of monastic life, Alina obsessively refuses to let go. High-strung and sexually charged, Alina is a disruptive force, and the priest’s dislike of her presence, while perhaps not very charitable, is understandable. Yet as events unfold and Alina’s mental state deteriorates, the hospital she’s taken to refuses to keep her, and her foster parents, like the orphanage before them, kindly wash their hands of her. It is the priest (Valeriu Andriuta), and only the priest, who, misguided and obscurantist as his practices may be, does not give up on her. His determination not to abandon her, of course, is also what finishes her.
The real tragedy of Alina’s fate is not just that she dies in slow agony at the hands of medieval-minded servants of God. It’s not even that they, in their fervent ignorance, actually mean well. The real tragedy is that Alina had, in a way, no other alternative. And the most disturbing aspect of all is the brutal realization that although her death is horrifying, we the viewer, just like the indifferent society Alina was born into, can at times barely suppress the wish to be rid of her. Beyond the Hills doesn’t just raise the question of responsibility. It rubs it uncomfortably against your conscience.