By Fariha Roisin | Criticwire October 22, 2012 at 2:31PM
From the very first shot of "Beyond the Hills," as Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) walks through a bustling crowd, a certain sense of intimacy is born. Only a few moments later she’s tightly embraced by her friend from the orphanage in which she grew up, Alina (Cristina Flutur). Alina is overwhelmingly flustered by the knowledge that she is alone and will have to leave Voichita again soon. As Alina cries, Voichita sternly placates, "Not here, people are looking." And with those words, the film begins.
After leaving the orphanage at 18, Alina went to work in Germany as a waitress and Voichita fled for a monastery, up in the hills. There, with no electricity and under the rule of an authoritarian priest (Valeriu Andriuta), she found God, submitting herself to piety and spiritual austerity. As Alina is with Voichita again, she yearns for the familiarity that they once had. There’s a sense of nostalgia pulling her by the throat; she misses Voichita as they used to be, her best friend, her foundation, her lover. Now Voichita is conditioned and submissive, believing that all things can be secured if one only has faith in God.
Throughout the film, director Cristian Mungiu builds tension as Alina becomes more hostile, growing afraid that Voichita will abandon her. It is clear that she has no other, and wants no other, finding a refuge in her only friend. In a group tableau shot, Mungiu beautifully portrays an intimate setting. Voichita talks to her fellow nuns about her relationship with Alina, omitting their lesbianism, fondly detailing, “She would always protect me.” The nuns question apprehensively, “What would she want in return?” And the answer hurts, “Nothing.”
Mungiu skillfully maintains a certain distance from all his subjects. Though Alina could be seen as the victim, she is also disruptive and violent. Similarly, the nuns may act naive and rueful, believing that Alina is possessed, but their intentions are always out of love. After she inflicts bodily harm onto herself and tries to commit suicide, she’s admitted into the hospital. She is drugged and diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and sent back to the monastery. Even the secular world betrays her. So the question remains, ominously; is anyone really to blame?
Mungiu is a searing and refreshing talent, with a flair for telling the kind of humanist stories that are often left unheard. Much like his Palme D’Or winning film "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days" this film focuses on female relationships and what the hardships of poverty embattle onto women in particular. Basing the script on the writings of BBC reporter Tatiana Niculescu Bran, the film is inspired by the true events at a Moldavian monastery in 2005, where a woman died after being subjugated to a forced exorcism. A co-production between Romania, France, Belgium, and the Dardennes brothers, "Beyond The Hills" is an homage to naturalism and crisp visual composition, with color-drained shots reminiscent of the portraits of German painter Hans Memling.
If anything, this film details the destruction surrounding the social circumstances of women in poverty, but also the destructive dogma that exists not only in Romania, but also on a global scale. There is an inherent sacrifice of the feminine that is discernible throughout this film, where women are perceived to be docile to the whims of evil. Mungiu is asking us to critique our behavior, or at least recognize it -- the weak and impoverished turn to religion, but where is the goodness when actual humanity is rejected?
At two and a half hours, "Beyond the Hills" is a perilous but rewarding film. As the characters strain and struggle, so do we, enduring the pain of the torture that is inflicted. As the final shot comes into play, the first sentence from Voichita’s lips echoes in our minds. What is left is shame, fear, and horror. Nothing else surfaces.
Fariha Roisin is a writer by day and a writer by night. A culture and film critic, she has a certain penchance for writing about women. 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.