- Genre: Drama
- Director: Cristian Mungiu
- Writers: Cristian Mungiu (screenplay), Tatiana Niculescu Bran (inspired by her non-fiction novels)
- Stars: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta
Since winning a Palme d’Or for “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” (2007), Cristian Mungui has become something of a celebrated cause for movie critics. He is placed as figurehead to the Romanian New Wave—whether he’s comfortable with the tag, or not.
Mungui’s follow-up, the mysteriously titled “Beyond The Hills” is a portrait of a religious community slowly succumbing to hysteria, as a troubled orphan pitches intent on taking one of their own away to Germany.
At two hours and twenty-eight minutes, the pace is glacial, though it’s made very clear from pointers along the way, where it shall eventually land. The term “slow cinema” is fraught with peril, and is actually not that helpful a moniker despite the good intentions behind it. And it is a bit like certain figures in this film. A heavy dose of fatalism blasts over the windswept wintry vistas that feels positively Gothic. Yet, it’s Mungui’s point blank depiction of events spiralling out of control, that offer an environment with no clearly defined heroes and villains. There is only painfully human responses and resistances, and this packs the biggest punch.
Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), best friends and maybe former lovers, reunite with a plan to escape their lives in rural Romania to Germany. The scheme is never destined to get further than the monastery gates, as Alina is more insistent on a shared future than her object of affection and desire. The latter is happy enough in her role as a sister soldier for Christ. And in the compound, Voichita has found safety and the love of a close knit community. The film opens with Alina bursting into tears as she sees her friend again, and Voichita asks her not to cry. This sets the tone of the relationship, the rest is misunderstanding and misery.
“Beyond the Hills” is also a study about authority figures whom render a person powerless in their pursuit of “doing the right thing.” We are then shown how emotionally expedient it is to claim genuine bemusement, as if it leads to exculpation of the individual and collective actions. The religious order appear terrified of Alina, but their priest (a leader), a man more worried about having his church and worldly status, can see through superstition and meaningless “signs.” But he commits to a course that may well ruin them all.
Mungui plays cleverly with a host of social and political issues, which along with cultural references could easily skirt cliche and melodrama. In stripping away these burdens, “Beyond the Hills” focuses on suppression of desire and exhibitions of power that turn malignant. Alina, fully expecting a happy ending does not get her way, and so she becomes like a child—disruptive and increasingly unhinged. The way these church members and other authorities deal with this girl, results in nothing but a tragedy. Is she mentally ill, possessed by Satan, or a woman fixated on a friend as a private piece of heaven and salvation from a life that has felt condemned? She’s at the gates of freedom, but denied entry.
The austerity, coldness and pace of the film will no doubt test the patience of some. However, twinned with a camera that rocks gently like a cobra waiting to strike, and at other times a master-class in exact framing; “Beyond the Hills” is an outstanding work of cinema that ends on a note of symbolism, as simple as it is deeply affecting.