Affairs of the heart and soul lead to inevitably tragic results in Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu's follow-up to his similarly austere 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Though Mungiu now situates himself in the present, his tale (based on an actual 2005 case) is, like its predecessor, one that revolves around two female friends imprisoned by societal structures—in this case, a remote Romanian Orthodox monastery where Alina (Cristina Flutur) travels after a prolonged stay in Germany to visit Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), her childhood best friend and former orphanage companion who's now promised herself to God. Their initial reunion on a train platform features Alina in hysterical tears and Voichita embarrassed by this show of affection. It's an omen of the burgeoning tensions that follow once they both return to the monastery, where Alina discovers that Voichita has become a true believer. And because the monastery's Father (Valeriu Andriuţǎ) has told her she won't be welcomed back if she leaves for any significant period, Voichita's no longer interested in their running away together to work as waitresses on a boat, as originally planned.
Such a revelation hits Alina hard, as evidenced by her suddenly developing a "fever." That ailment, coupled with her caressing Voichita's hand while receiving a topless back and body rub to soothe her ailments, an act that prompts Voichita to pull away and begin praying, suggests that lonely Alina's unhappiness is one rooted in sexual longing and rejection. Mungiu implies this lesbian relationship clearly enough for it to be concrete and yet never allows it to dominate his story, which finds Alina at first confused by, and then increasingly bitter about, the fact that Voichita wants her to go to confession with Father—a process that, Father claims, is the only path to peace—and then accept and embrace an ascetic life there with her. Her Reebok windbreakers standing in stark contrast to the nuns' black robes and headdresses, Alina exhibits unmistakable signs of emotional instability that, per a comment by Voichita, seem born from years of neglect and self-abuse, and soon suicide attempts and violence come to define her stay at the monastery, as well as threats to other nuns and the Father, whom the jealous Alina suspects physically covet Voichita.
Mungiu lays his narrative out with the same naturalism that defined 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, as well as so much of the Romanian New Wave efforts that followed in its wake. Eschewing non-diegetic music and fixating on the details of his milieu and its inhabitants, Mungiu displays a keen sociologist's eye, be it during scenes of food preparation, communion, or, ultimately, the exorcism that Father and his flock perform on Alina to combat erratic and volatile behavior they diagnose as demonic possession. The writer-director's consistent attention to particulars, however, also applies to his condemnation, which isn't confined merely to his devout characters. Rather, his censure extends to a medical establishment primarily interested in passing the buck, as evidenced by an early visit to the emergency room that ends with a lazy doctor handing Alina back to the nuns, as well as a largely unseen larger society—represented by Alina's foster parents, spied in only one sequence—that has little interest in the long-term wellbeing of its most in-need members, who are treated as disposable and replaceable.
At 150 minutes, Beyond the Hills finds itself prone to repetition, especially in a middle passage in which certain comments and incidents, such as another not-so-casual touch shared by Alina and Voichita that again leads to prayer, are rehashed to somewhat frustrating effect. That said, such duplication does contribute to the borderline-hypnotic austerity and drudgery of the lifestyle on display, one that's predicated on constricting routine and ritual rather than promoting true growth. Still, if such an atmosphere is simultaneously immersive and a tad too languid, first-time leads Stratan and Flutur prove dual revelations, exuding a mixture of competing desires, frustrations, fury, and misery with a guilelessness and intensity that's riveting. Both benefit immeasurably from a script that, even with regard to Father and his followers, complicates straightforward sympathy for any of its characters, whose desperate and foolish decisions are routinely cast as understandable in the moment, if not defensible. Yet ultimately, it's Mungiu's staging and compositional skill that lends the material its true sense of dawning dread, climaxing in a final few shots that piercingly lay out both Voichita's personal trapped-between-two-worlds hell and, sadder still, modern societal structures as incapable of doing anything more to improve life than momentarily wipe away the grime before more lands in one's face.