Affairs of the heart and soul lead to inevitably tragic results in Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu’s follow-up to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The film 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 leader, a priest called Papa (Valeriu Andriuta), has told her she won’t be welcomed back if she leaves for any significant period, Voichita is no longer interested in their running away together to work as waitresses on a boat, as originally planned.
Hit hard by this revelation, Alina develops a “fever” that, 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 Alina’s unhappiness is rooted in sexual longing and rejection. Mungiu more than implies this repressed lesbian longing but 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 Papa—a process that, the priest claims, is the only path to peace—and then 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 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 Papa, 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 Papa 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 redundancy is in sync with the borderline-hypnotic austerity and drudgery of the monastic life on display throughout the film, 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 actresses benefit immeasurably from a script that, even with regard to Papa 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.
If Cristian Mungiu has been occasionally dismissed for creating films as if from a template, the Criterion Collection’s release of Beyond the Hills stresses the magnificence of said template. The film’s 2.39:1 widescreen compositions are simultaneously grand and cloistered, and the profound tension between cold expansiveness and cloistered drabness is beautifully rendered. Similarly, the 5.1 surround sound mix sinks the viewer deeper and deeper into the film’s slow-burn conflict. In the absence of flagrant activity comes the heightened, Bressonian awareness of negative space. Like the monastery’s band of nuns, Criterion’s disc exudes quiet but insistent power.
How much you enjoy the extras Criterion curated for this release will strongly depend on how welcoming you are of Cristian Mungiu’s voice in the first person. Nearly everything here apart from a mixed bag of deleted scenes is, to borrow from an overworked restauranteur cliché, Mungiu served three ways. (Which, as his auteurist star continues to rise, is probably a shrewd move on Criterion’s part.) First and maybe foremost is the 37-minute behind-the-scenes documentary overseen by Mungiu himself, in which he chronicles what drew him to the severe project in the first place and why he didn’t even bother seeking permission to film on location. Some of the same nuts-and-bolts ground is covered again in a new interview shot in Bucharest, but what really comes through in this new 36-minute clip is just how important this particular project was to Mungiu in terms of his artistic development. He’s still highly enthusiastic over Beyond the Hills, befitting its status as a touchstone work. Finally, a near-hour press conference from when the film premiered at Cannes is also included, which also includes actors Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, and Dana Tapalaga. It’s much more stilted than the other two pieces, and includes the requisite amount of doltish queries from the international press, but at least you also get to hear from Flutur and Stratan, who split the award for best actress at the festival that year. Rounding it out is a thoughtful essay from scholar Doru Pop.
For some, Beyond the Hills is the Romanian New Wave biting off more than it can chew. For others, it’s the spiritual love child of Dreyer and the Dardennes. Either way, the ambition of Cristian Mungiu’s film will not be denied.