“Beyond the Hills,” Cristian Mungiu’s shortlisted Oscar entry from Romania, is shot in gorgeous grey-gold widescreen. The film is set in the rural countryside, where a humble monastery dots the top of a sparse hill. When a stranger intrudes the monastery, and wreaks havoc on its order and indirectly on herself, the nature of belief systems is called into question.
Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), a young nun living in the monastery, is visited by her friend Alina (Cristina Flutur), who has been working in Germany for the past several years. We learn that the two women knew each other while growing up in an orphanage. Alina has “been alone with her thoughts” too long in Germany, and is anxious to start a new life close to her old friend. Voichita is reluctant to leave the monastery, and instead attempts to bring the taciturn, physically awkward Alina into the religious fold. The night of her arrival, Alina demands a “rubdown” from Voichita, which involves lying bare-breasted on the bed while her friend massages oil onto her stomach. This doesn’t bode well for Alina’s assimilation into the orthodox community.
Indeed, Alina proves startlingly possessive of Voichita, constantly alluding to a vague if likely sexual relationship they shared in the past. The other nuns, and even the priest, a tomb-faced man with a long tangle of beard, are susceptible to Alina’s jealousy. “Why does Sister Iustina look at you that way? Have you fucked Father?” she asks Voichita accusingly. Jealousy quickly morphs into something more sinister. Alina has fits, threatening to throw herself down a well, cursing at the other nuns, and breaking into violent spasms. The priest and nuns respond to these outbursts by ordering her to confession, penance and eventually using force -- bindings and a gag. The priest, who has been wary of Alina’s presence from the start, suggests treating the girl by “reading a service.” This is a euphemism for an exorcism.
Superstition is the central theme of “Beyond the Hills,” and rears its menacing head throughout the film. While the nuns have their share of superstitious fears -- one mentions a friend whose eyes turned black after living near a graveyard -- eerie beliefs have an institutional presence, too. When Voichita visits the passport regulation office, the employees casually talk about a spurned co-worker’s dabblings in witchcraft. Alina is taken to the hospital after her first apoplectic fit, and the doctor suggests that “reading Scriptures” may provide a cure. As Alina lies in the drab hospital room, bound and drugged, another worse-off patient lies in the cot beside her. “She jumped out of a window because she hasn’t gotten her period,” the nurse laments.
Stratan and Flutur both won Best Actress awards at Cannes for their performances, and together they are the hypnotic yin and yang of the film. Stratan’s raven hair, pool-like eyes and soft voice as the impressionable Voichita are in contrast with Flutur’s angular cheek bones and androgynous countenance as Alina. They show two different narratives of people coping without family. Voichita, fresh out of an orphanage and lacking parental guidance, is ripe for the open, austere arms of the monastery. And the monastery seems a little too inclined to exploit that need. Voichita guides Alina around the nunnery's spare rooms and surrounding hills, talking constantly about the priest, calling him “Papa… We’re allowed to call him that when outsiders aren’t around.”
In turn, Alina focuses her attention singularly, devastatingly on Voichita. In the film’s unbroken opening shot, she recklessly skips in front of a near-approaching train to give Voichita a tight, desperate hug. What people do to feel not alone, and what they are willing to believe, drives “Beyond the Hills.” Voichita turns to religion, which offers her security, and Alina turns to her only friend, who offers her prayers. As a minor but important character says near the film's end: "I'd rather go to hell than have any of you pray for me."
"Beyond the Hills" opens March 8 via Sundance Selects. Our TOH! interview with director Cristian Mungiu is here.