A sneaky sort of exorcism film from director Cristian Mungiu, Beyond the Hills takes place in a Romanian monastery that offers solace to troubled women – if they’re willing to follow the rules. Anything other than complete subservience suggests a weakness of faith or, worse, possible possession. Yet if Beyond the Hills is an exorcism movie, the scariest thing about it is that there isn’t a demon to be found.
Like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu’s harrowing, international breakthrough about a woman pursuing an illegal abortion, Beyond the Hills tells the story of an individual suffering under the impersonal strictures of a firmly entrenched power structure. There the oppressor was a Communist dictatorship; here it’s religion in general and an isolated offshoot of the Romanian Orthodox Church in particular. For Mungiu, it seems, both entities treat the humanity of the individual with the same sort of disdain.
As Beyond the Hills opens, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), a young nun at the monastery, is at the train station waiting to meet Alina (Cristina Flutur). The two friends grew up together in an orphanage and then went their separate ways. While Voichita hopes to convince Alina to commit to the religious life, Alina has the opposite plan: to take Voichita away with her to new opportunity in Germany.
Mungiu has done some clever casting here. It’s not only that the two women, who shared the Best Actress award at the 2012 Cannes film festival, are supremely gifted performers, able to employ both stillness (Stratan) and rage (Flutur) to expert effect. It’s also their faces. Stratan has a serene, rounded visage that befits a young nun, yet there is something haunted/haunting about her pale eyes. Flutur is the opposite – nothing haunts her because the aggression and distress is all there on the surface, from her hard stare to her wolfish features.
…if Beyond the Hills is an exorcism movie, the scariest thing about it is that there isn’t a demon to be found.
Early on, Mungiu captures the dynamic of their relationship in a few quick strokes. At the station, Alina rushes toward Voichita with no concern for an oncoming train (it’s the first of many sudden scares). Later, at the monastery, Alina brazenly undresses before Voichita and asks if she can share her bed, suggesting a sexual relationship in their past. Whatever the past, the present seems clear: Voichita’s love for Alina has transferred into something more akin to Christian charity, while Alina’s is more personal, feral and passionate.
That would be enough drama for one film – especially in the hands of someone like Mungiu, who brings a painterly sense of concentration to each frame. Beyond the Hills becomes more heightened, however, with the increasing dominance of the monastery’s priest (Valeriu Andriuta), whom the women call Father, or Papa. A staunch traditionalist, Papa has little time for a wild card like Alina, unless she’s willing to go to confession and follow through with the assigned penance. His is a thin theology, one that is incapable of dealing with the average human psyche, let alone a troubled one like that of Alina.
Under Voichita’s encouragement, Alina tries to form herself according to the monastery’s demands. But she always falters, then falls back into a burst of violent defiance. Unable to process this in anything other than their narrow religious terms, the women whisper that perhaps she’s possessed. Wouldn’t that explain why the hens haven’t been laying eggs? That the shape of a black cross appeared in a piece of split wood? That Alina’s voice seems to change when she becomes disturbed?
And so, before we even realize it, Mungiu has put us in the middle of an exorcism movie. More sneakily, because we’ve been steeped in the language and traditions of the monastery for so long, the actions that Papa and the others take in order to “help” Alina seem, in some small way, reasonable. Even Voichita, who has been her gentle protector and encourager throughout, doesn’t raise her voice to object.
But watch how Voichita watches. There are two ingenious matching shots in Beyond the Hills, both of which feature a number of characters in busy action in the foreground. Though these figures dominate the frame, they remain out of focus, while Voichita’s face can be seen clearly in the background, observing the action with those ghostly eyes. A sense of horror begins to dawn on Voichita and (if it hasn’t already) the audience.
Beyond the Hills comes back down to earth with a denouement that’s initially underwhelming. But the movie has made its point and doesn’t really need to bother with any more plot. I wouldn’t dare give away the final shot, except to say that it’s unassuming and perfect – an image of people who thought they had seen the supernatural being slapped awake by the earthly and mundane.