Beyond the Hills is Cristian Mungiu’s follow up to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days which won the coveted Palme d’Or in 2007 and once again, the director utilises the close friendship of two female protagonists to comment upon gender and politics influenced by Communism and its chokehold on Romanian society. While political and sexual repressions were depicted through the gamut of illegal abortion, here it is commented upon through an organised religious sect.
Volchita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) are young women in their twenties, having grown up together in an orphanage. They have a familial bond tied by history and circumstance rather than blood; the true nature of their relationship is hinted at yet remains somewhat ambiguous throughout. Alina returns from Germany, where she now works, for a few days – a holiday – expectant that Volchita will return with her. Instead, she finds her friend living in a Monastery deep in the Romanian hills, literally hidden from civilisation embedded in an austere, archaic landscape. Volchita is confined to the bosom of Nuns who cohabit under the strict patriarchal, authoritarian rule of ‘Father’ (Valeriu Anchuta). The devout community stands alone next to an unconsecrated Church which houses a small congregation on a holy day. A sign on the front gate reads, “This is the house of God, forbidden to anybody of a different religion. Believe and don’t doubt”, the irony of which is not lost on the viewer especially once learning of the idolatrous and essentially, sacrilegious existence of this ‘House of God’. It is interesting and somewhat staggering to note that nearly 86% of the Romanian population practises the Orthodox faith, despite the fact that the country has no state religion but then, this film is not preoccupied with religious institution, at least not completely.
Mungiu’s third feature is a love story of sorts, faith at its very heart; belief in State, family and in a God which remains largely silent. It is a film about exorcism/possession, one situated outside of the confines of genre conventions and misogynistic dictatorship which is set on suppressing sinners who also happen to be women. The population outside is at a distance. You would be forgiven for thinking of it as a historical drama, the community is frozen in time, isolated, amid a lack of running water and electricity, save for Alina and her contemporary clothes. She is often the only splash of colour in an otherwise dark, dismal, and sombre mise-en-scène. She is a symbol of the outside world threatening to upset and challenge the religious conservatism and totalitarianism that appear to have engulfed Volchita.
The film is beautifully shot, blue and grey hued washes are abundant across the breathtaking landscape always captured in long shot, adding, not only, to its beauty but also educing the notion of freedom especially when juxtaposed with the interior medium shots. All employ, long takes, deep focus and are tightly framed which feeds the claustrophobic and repressive nature of the Monastery, exacerbating the tension between the religious and secular dichotomy and, in addition, the verisimilar style of storytelling Mungiu and his Romanian New Wave contemporaries adopt.
Beyond the Hills is deliberately paced to show the mundanity of life and natural flow of time. It is an enthralling and chilling commentary on traditionalism, irrationality of society and humanity at its most flawed. By its conclusion, which takes a jolting twist, all are accountable and yet there is no obvious villain. The final shot will resonate for a long time after the film has finished, once again, proving Mungiu as a director of merit, one who can coax astonishing performances from his leading actors and I know I, for one, will be awaiting his next contribution with bated breath.
*They condemn what they don’t understand