Small (Cinema)Scope: The Widescreen Imagery of 'Beyond the Hills'

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by Blair McClendon
October 12, 2012 11:51 AM
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"Work of art" does not suffice as a label for Cristian Mungiu’s new film, "Beyond The Hills." Cameras have long celebrated labor, of bodies as well as minds, and here the film itself has become "work" in all of its most beautiful, terrifying connotations. This tale of two young women -- friends since their days in an orphanage, who reunite in a monastery -- pushes itself to the point of exhaustion. Yet, it never collapses. It only builds upon itself promising something ever more powerful until the screen finally goes black and the audience, too, has labored long and hard.

If a filmmaker is going to make an audience work, there must be a certain amount of reciprocity. The film’s composition must reflect the experience the viewer is about to undertake. Fritz Lang famously stated in Jean-Luc Godard’s "Contempt" that CinemaScope was not a format for men, but snakes or burials. While Mungiu has not adopted a full anamorphic lens as in the early days of 'Scope, he has used the 2.35:1 widescreen format for two movies focused on intimate, terrifying personal dramas. Few would contend that widescreen is categorically inappropriate for certain projects. Nevertheless, Mungiu and his compatriots’ compositional techniques have been so skillfully deployed that Lang’s quote has not only been disproved, but in "Beyond the Hills" a rare synthesis of form and content has been achieved. 

With its tone and subject matter, Mungiu’s last film "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" announced the arrival of a major artist willing to take on serious political issues. "Beyond the Hills" is no less explosive, no less visceral and confronts just as serious a question: what is the proper role of religion in society? Rather than adopt the trope of religious figures making excursions into an increasingly secular world, the story brings Alina, a nonbeliever, into a sacred space. In doing so, both she and her friend Voichita are forced out of their comfort zone. The pair, astonishingly played by newcomers Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, rightly split the Cannes Best Actress award as they appear on screen as hopelessly intertwined warring factions of the past competing to stake claim to an unstable present.

The filmmaker stated in an interview that he was uninterested in metaphors, so it would be unfair to say Alina and Voichita are nothing more than allegorical figures of society. The movie takes care to build up a specific past that continues to make itself felt. It is repeatedly hinted that the two suffered from regular abuse and that Alina, as the tougher of the two, tried to protect them as best she could. Back in the presence of one another, their earthly suffering becomes all too evident. Life, and the ways they have chosen to lead it, is suffocating; perfectly illustrated in one of Mungiu’s masterful night scenes. Perhaps no other filmmaker today is more adept at plunging his or her audience into darkness and revealing there the core of an all-too-human grace. In the middle of the monastery’s courtyard, cast in the moon’s glow, a flock of nuns wrestle Alina to the ground after what they believe to be a suicide attempt. Their flowing robes swirl away from and back towards their bodies. They all cry out, struggling against Alina’s blows and their own fear of what is transpiring. Now and again, the bright colors of the outsider’s track jacket flash forward from beneath this black sea. Mungiu has no need for metaphors, because he is capable of literalizing the struggle between the church and the apostate.

It is only through struggle -- physical, emotional and spiritual -- that anything moves forward in "Beyond the Hills." Mungiu does not depict it as something that is done for the sake of conquering obstacles. Instead the struggles themselves begin to coalesce and we make sense of them not by resolving the characters’ actions to clichéd motivations, but rather by accepting them as necessary according to the worldviews of these individuals. The nuns do not chain Alina to what seems to be a cross in order to make a martyr of her, but in order to protect themselves from her incessant attacks. However, there is a difference between what the nuns know to be true and what a theater full of people knows to be true. What appears to Alina’s colleagues a mere necessity, is still the construction of one of the most politically and socially fraught symbols in Western history. To put someone on a cross and then to put that image on the screen is not something done lightly. 

Filming a young woman bound to a cross in order to safely perform an exorcism is quite an ordeal. By utilizing a long take, Mungiu refuses to let his audience cheat. They will see the work that goes in to creating this image by watching it as it happens. The long take, he argues, emphasizes that film is primarily about time.  Time in this movie is not an abstraction, but is a very real part of experience. It is the time it takes to do something. Whatever Voichita endures by watching and not acting the audience must also endure. That experience is necessarily a visual one and even if "Beyond The Hills" is primarily working with time, it must also work through images.

Perhaps the best description of Mungiu’s image comes from French magazine Objectif and is in fact about fellow Romanian Radu Muntean. The article described his Muntean’s use of widescreen in the film "Tuesday, After Christmas" as a necessary tool for creating a “mental landscape.” This is not just landscape in the metaphorical sense, but in the tradition of the medium of painting. By pushing a format even wider than John Ford used for his trademark vistas into avowedly interpersonal dramas, the camera does not simply record a fact, but visually elevates interior battles to a level of grandeur normally reserved for exterior warfare. Mungiu has adopted this same conception of the frame’s possibilities. The rolling hills of the film’s titles are rarely shown. Instead, we are given quavering, angry, hurt and confused bodies. The great drama of 'Scope is no longer defined by the charge of cavalry, but by the solitude imposed by Voichita’s unanswered prayers. 

While cinematic images are generally understood as referring to what is shown and how it is shown, Mungiu’s images are also about what cannot be seen. The camera is tethered to Voichita, refusing to go where she cannot. Moreover, the most powerful symbol in the film’s arsenal is never made explicit. Although we watch the nuns nail boards together and a police officer near the end even says, “that looks like a cross,” we can never be sure because it is not given to us in whole. Any degree of certainty comes from imaginative efforts on the viewer’s part. Although Mungiu’s cinema has been labeled "observational," as though the audience is passively picking up facts, his sequences in fact invite us to do exactly that kind of work. We reach the end of his shots and must think through what we have seen and heard along with what we have not seen or heard. When all is said and done, the fruits of our labor prove sweet. 

Blair McClendon is currently studying art history at Columbia University, while working in and writing about film. He firmly believes that the Mothers of America should let their kids go to the movies. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy's work.

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