For a work of decidedly unglamorous filmmaking, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills is a surprisingly enveloping experience. Proving just how far good writing, acting, and directing can go in the absence of music or exciting edits, this tragedy of two young Romanian women separated by religion succeeds because of its minimalism, which in turn allows the above cinematic basics to shine.
From the opening moment where Alina (Cristina Flutur) emotionally embraces Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) at a train station, it’s clear that the former aches for the latter. Childhood pals from their days at a local orphanage, the two have plans to move to Germany and work on a boat, yet while Alina has been abroad scouting out their future, Voichita has dedicated her life to God and instilled herself at a hilltop monastery. So begins Alina’s frustrating battle to reclaim her friend, a struggle whose life-altering consequences make her a sentimental favorite. Unwilling to accept this sudden change, her desperation permeates each heartfelt exchange yet is matched by Voichita’s commitment to her way of life. In Stratan’s pained eyes is a dual-pronged love for her old friend and new commitment, and though she craves both only one path may have her full support.
Each woman believes she is right and present valid arguments for their conflicting causes, but only Alina takes her stance to the next level. Doing her best to poke holes in the monastery’s structure, Flutur shines as her Alina accuses head honcho priest Father (Valerieu Andriuta) of sexually abusing the vulnerable young women in his care and highlights faults in their rigid beliefs, including that of a miracle-inducing idol only Father can wield. Unable to convince through simple logic, her quest to show Voichita her perceived falseness of religion becomes the film’s focus and it’s fascinating to witness her various attempts, some subtle and others overt. Unfortunately for Alina, her rebellious nature is interpreted by these God-fearing folk as the Devil’s doing, and being wildly outnumbered she falls under their frustrating archaic mercy.
Showcasing this complex struggle, Beyond the Hills stitches together scenes that run long yet escape notice due to the careful orchestration of its performers. Reacting with terror to Alina’s unusual behavior, numerous moments involve the nuns wailing in the face of assumed evil. Though each woman is identically clothed and next to no information is known about Voichita’s peers, there’s a sense that each is exhibiting a unique level of emotion, thereby establishing an identity through their respective response while still belonging to a unified group. As Munguiu’s camera softly moves among the scene like a fellow dazed onlooker, the filmmaker’s immense planning is evident through the astounding execution. Thanks to such consistently intentional direction, the film’s 2.5 hours go by remarkably fast and, unlike many similar efforts, keep the bleak material from making the run time feel twice that long.
Beyond the Hills is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.