In the final moments of Beyond the Hills, a passing bus splashes dirty slush onto the windshield of a police van. The van’s wipers smear the grimy water across the windshield. It’s one of the more exciting moments in a drawn-out film that’s more a critique of Romanian society and religion than anything else.
Romania’s 2012 foreign film Oscar nominee presents, unedited, the drab grayness of a cold Romanian winter, and long single shot scenes of people explaining where they’re going and what they’re doing next. It has perhaps the most misleadingly titillating plot synopsis of any film: lesbian nuns and an exorcism.
To be clear, there are nuns, lesbians and an exorcism of sorts. But there is nothing stereotypical about director Cristian Mungiu’s presentation of any of them.
The story is “inspired by” the non-fiction novels of journalist and author Tatiana Niculescu Bran, adapted to emphasize the emotions the true tale conjured in Mungiu’s mind. Beyond the Hills is the story of Alina and Voichita, two young women who grew up together in an orphanage in Romania (They deliver compelling, nuanced performances in their first feature film, one of the few redeeming elements in these Hills).
They were lovers, but really they are about the only family each other has. At the orphanage they endured abuses, briefly mentioned but fairly critical considering they propelled Voichita to God and a convent life, while Alina suffers from abandonment issues, among other things.
Mungiu begins when the two are reunited for the first time in years. Alina wants Voichita to leave the convent so they can have a life together, but Voichita has found refuge at the convent and refuses. The convent’s rituals are foreign to Alina, and she soon lashes out at the convent’s resident priest. The nuns take Alina to a hospital, where she’s prescribed medications for schizophrenia and then sent back to the convent for care. When she continues to act strangely, the priest and nuns blame it on demon possession. Suffice it to say things don’t end well.
Stylistically the film has merit. Mungiu blends the long-take tradition from early film with today’s overused unsteady camerawork. It lets characters develop clearly. But his huge script, which started at over 245 pages before he cut it to 180 (most films are between 90 and 120 pages of script), is epic in length. This means he doubly explains through visuals and dialogue, so that by the end of the film he’s beaten viewers over the head with his message. Despite cutting 30-40 minutes from the film as he went, and for editing a lot of scenes in consecutive takes, Mungiu’s result needs a lot of additional editing. That’s what happens when you film on deadline for Cannes, with your editor working from a hotel room near the shooting.
His handling of religion is less noteworthy. Writing about the film Mungiu notes, “Most of the greatest mistakes of this world have been made in the name of faith, and with the absolute conviction they were done for a good cause.” I guess he’s forgotten about the world wars and the half century of Communism Romania endured.
Mungiu’s priest is his attempt to “sympathetically” portray a backwards unenlightened cult-like leader, who is being watched by the church. The nuns under the priest are a worshiping brood of superstitious hens – they think an artifact he possesses has healing powers, spook at a cross-shaped blemish in a piece of wood and generally blow everything out of proportion. Mungiu does note that his story is about a “certain way” of experiencing religion. But considering the film he’s most famous for (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is the story of two girls seeking a back-alley abortion in 1980s Romania), I doubt he’ll be portraying any other way of experiencing religion any time soon.
Because of this, Mungiu’s Romania is a broken, dilapidated place devoid of hope. Mungiu says of Romania that “longtime exposure to an endless succession of misfortunes and atrocities of all kinds has led to a breed of inert people who have lost their normal reactions in front of normal stimuli.” It’s evident not only in Alina’s brother (a distant, silent young man, led about like a drugged animal), but in the easy matter-of-fact way that government officials and officers discuss tragedies ranging from an attempted suicide by a pregnant teen to a murdering child who posted pictures of his deed on the Internet.
Together, Mungiu’s Romania and his presentation of the convent tragedy is depressing and without a solution. Combined with its length issues, Beyond the Hills is like dirty water splashed on a windshield: momentarily irritating and shortly forgotten.