Loosely based on true events (very loosely), Beyond the Hills, the latest from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu, tells the story of an isolated windswept snowswept monastery in Romania where an exorcism goes horribly wrong. I suppose any exorcism could already be an indication that things have gone very wrong somewhere, but Beyond the Hills immerses you so completely in the poverty and cold comfort of this particular world that it “checks out” entirely that an exorcism would seem to be a valid response to the situation. That’s part of what is so awful and relentless about Beyond the Hills. There is no deus ex machina in sight. Events march towards their inevitable conclusion. In a later scene that takes place in the nearby town, you see someone talking on a cell phone, and it is jarring. You had forgotten that you were in the modern world at all.
Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) grew up in an orphanage. They were best friends from first grade. The friendship probably helped them survive the brutal circumstances of the orphanage which involved poverty and sexual abuse and rape on a systematic level. Leaving the orphanage, however, was a traumatic event. At least in the orphanage you had a roof over your head and occasional meals (provided by the monastery’s garden). Alina was taken in by a foster family, but eventually she got too old for that (both girls are now in their mid-20s). She went to Germany and got a job in a restaurant. Voichita, on the other hand, stayed in Romania, and became a nun, joining the local monastery.
It is impossible to talk about the film without talking about Mungiu’s directorial style, which is a huge part of why it works. This was also true in his 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, another harrowing look at the life and culture of Romania. Mungiu likes to do one shot per scene. People do move in and out of frame, and occasionally (but only very occasionally) there is a change of POV, a cut within a scene. If there is a change in the POV mid-scene, it is always hugely important. You will feel this even if you haven’t noticed the one-shot-per-scene structure. Mungiu’s filmmaking style works on you in subtle and relentless ways, igniting feelings of dread and tension that cannot be pointed to exactly on the screen. There are no “Gotcha!” cuts, no lingering shots highlighting the horror, no quick cuts to artificially spike the audience’s adrenaline. Without any tricks (although, I suppose, one shot per scene is also a “trick”), his films are often nearly unbearable in their sense of inevitability and horror. The screen is sometimes very crowded, with people, with voices. You have to decide what to look at, you have to filter through the chaos of voices to find out what is actually happening onscreen. Scenes go on for so long that it is amazing how it starts to operate: There were specific times during Beyond the Hills when I could feel my eyes actually zoom in, locating (finally) what was important, the essence of a scene. And the camera angle had never changed.
This is challenging filmmaking, for sure, especially if you have a low tolerance for slow-paced uninsistent cinema. Mungiu will not tell where to look, how to feel, and what it means. It’s all up to you. An exaggeration, to be sure, because Mungiu certainly has a point of view, but the film does not hammer that point of view home. There is no score, no incidental music. There is nothing between us and the images. Scenes are long, filled with talk, filled with silences. The camera watches. It is that unvarnished quality, of being in the presence of something raw and unfinished (although the acting is superb, these are clearly not amateurs, and everything Mungiu does with his camera is extremely deliberate), that makes the film such a deeply unsettling experience.
Beyond the Hills, with its long takes and unmoving camera, has the feel of great live theatre. The script is complex and charged, and the emotions are enormous, although the action (as it were) doesn’t really get going until the final third of the film. And once it starts, once the exorcism becomes inevitable (and it is so inevitable as to be practically foreordained), everything changes. The screen becomes frenetic, jagged, chaotic. People run at top speed in and out of frame. You can’t see what is happening clearly. The camera still never moves, and yet you ache to see the periphery, you are impatient to see around corners, because in that way perhaps you can get ahead of events and stop them. This is a classic response to classic tragedy.
Beyond the Hills opens with Voichita, draped in black, greeting Alina (in a track suit) at the train. Their embrace is so emotional and expressive (a lover’s embrace) that Voichita murmurs at one point, “Alina. People are looking.” Alina has returned to Romania from Germany, ostensibly to go back to the orphanage and get her papers (she needs her diploma) and also to pick up some stuff she left at her foster family’s house. But it’s immediately apparent that she is really there to fetch Voichita. Voichita has entered the monastery, an action that is incomprehensible to Alina. Alina does not respect the fact that Voichita chose this life with no coercion. All Alina can see is that she and Voichita have always been together and they must continue to be together. In Alina’s mind, Voichita will leave the monastery at a moment’s notice, come back to Germany with her, and they will get jobs waitressing on a boat. This isn’t a plan or a hope to Alina. It is what is going to happen. She cannot even perceive any other option or alternative.
It is that rigidity which starts to crack open over the abyss of madness already yawning under Alina’s feet. A willow tree doesn’t snap in a hurricane, due to its give and take with the elements. But giant oak trees snap in two. Voichita is a willow, but Alina is an oak. You fear for her. Rightly so.
Voichita is a novitiate in the monastery, which is basically a small farm. They grow potatoes and vegetables and drive them into town periodically, to feed the orphans at the orphanage. I suppose if you come into Beyond the Hills with a strong anti-religious bias, the good things the monastery does cannot outweigh the bad or the creepy. It’s a valid point. But Mungiu’s portrayal of the hardscrabble world in Romania demands a bit more complexity. While nobody has a lot here, the monastery has more than most. The nearby town is clearly poverty-struck and overridden by garbage. The orphanage looks like a hellhole. We’ve all heard the stories about the conditions in Romanian orphanages. It is not at all mysterious that Voichita would flee into the calm quiet life surrounded by fields and hills after growing up in such a putrid violent environment. When the nuns drop off the food at the orphanage, a young woman who is clearly in her late teens, begs to be taken in at the monastery. She is getting too old to stay at the orphanage. There is a lot of competition to join the order. To “stay” at the monastery, you must take religious orders and submit to the rigors of a contemplative monastic life; it’s not a B&B or a halfway house. You get the sense that for some it is a desire to live a life in service to God, but for others it is for the protection and safety the life offers. Life under Communism was no great shakes; Ceaușescu’s regime was brutal and repressive. But the downfall of Communism has laid the country open to a rapacious black-market capitalism and rampant crime and poverty. It’s a big fat mess. Living in religious silence with no electricity and no running water may be a drag but it’s a hell of a lot better than what’s going on in the towns and cities in Romania.
Voichita has gotten permission for Alina to stay with her for a few days until Alina returns to Germany. Truth be told, Voichita is worried about Alina. Something doesn’t seem quite right. The nuns all treat Alina with kindness, although they too perhaps sense that something isn’t quite right with this lanky girl in the track suit sitting at their table. The monastery is run by a bearded priest (Valeriu Andriuta) everyone refers to, cultishly, as “Papa”. He is a believer, for sure, but he doesn’t seem like a crackpot. He confers with the head nun about food deliveries, and car repairs, and getting the church painted. The rules are strict in the monastery, but Alina is allowed to wander around in her track suit. Everyone is concerned that she isn’t a believer, but they are kind to her. They keep their distance and do gossip gently about what her life must be like in Germany (humorously, one of them asks in a whisper, “Do you think she got involved in a cult?”)
Things start to go south. Well, they’ve already gone south before the picture even starts. We are just lucky enough to witness the downfall of Alina, and the series of unfortunate events, some accidental, some deliberate, that put her in harm’s way. As far as Alina is concerned, she is still in a love-relationship with Voichita. Nothing Voichita says can dissuade her from believing that when she goes back to Germany, Voichita will come with. Their conversations are tense and grief-struck. Alina does not like “Papa”, and says to Voichita at one point, “Does he fuck you?”
Alina disturbs the other nuns. She dislikes one in particular, who seems to be friendly with Voichita. Not understanding the code of conduct, not understanding the rules and subtext that underlay the life of the monastery, Alina treats all as an obstacle to her being with her love, her only love. She is aggressive at times.
Alina has a violent breakdown. The nuns and Papa, terrified and concerned, take her to the local hospital where she is strapped to a bed. The doctor clearly perceives that the woman has a mental illness of some kind and prescribes all kinds of medication. He recommends that she go back to the monastery to recuperate, it would be better than lying in the hospital surrounded by sick people.
And it is there that the film takes its final sickening swerve. You know that Alina should not go back. I did not see the nuns or Papa as malevolent creatures. They actually did try to do right at first by the violent disturbed young woman in their midst. This is a medical issue, not a spiritual one, and she should be under a doctor’s care. But once Alina returns (and she is glad to return, as much as she despises Papa and the other nuns, because Voichita is there), the conversation turns more and more towards spiritual matters. Alina is troubled. She needs to go to confession. She needs to really confess, too, she can’t leave anything out. (It is clear that Papa and some of the other nuns discern the nature of Voichita and Alina’s former relationship.) She needs to take God into her heart. There is clearly something demonic working on Alina. It has her in its grip. Voichita is starting to believe that as well. No matter what she says, she cannot make Alina understand that she will not be going back to Germany with her.
An orchestrated campaign of conversion begins. Alina, just happy to be out of the hospital and back with Voichita, does whatever they say. A nun reads aloud all of the possible sins there are (all 456 of them), to see if Alina thinks they apply. Alina obediently checks them off on a pad of paper. She goes to confession. But it’s not “working”. Of course it’s not. She’s in love with Voichita, that’s what’s going on here. It’s not a demon, it’s a broken heart, and a long life of suffering and abuse that has destroyed this fragile precious young woman. But you stay in the monastery, you play by their rules. Alina tries. But not really. One afternoon, she attacks the nun she suspects is in love with Voichita. The nun is terrified, screaming, “There’s something not right in her eyes!”
Papa has private conferences with Voichita, telling her that Alina must go, she is disrupting the entire community. Voichita is devastated. Where will Alina go? She has nowhere to go in this world. Papa reminds Voichita that the monastery is not a hotel, people must submit to their way of life. Voichita begs. Papa relents.
When the decision comes to perform an exorcism on Alina, so much else has happened, so many other solutions tried and discarded, that, awfully, you can kind of see where these people are coming from. This is a terrible statement, and I must qualify it by saying that what happens to Alina is not only unnecessary but barbaric. It is an indictment of the superstition and ignorance that runs rampant in cloistered fanatical religious orders. What I saw was ignorance and carelessness to the point of criminality, but not deliberate or malicious cruelty, which perhaps makes it worse. I don’t know. I felt as helpless as anyone watching events unfold. But I also saw a community living by its own rules, in peace (more or less), content with the life they chose, and truly convinced that the Devil had a hold on this girl. These were not cackling judgmental villains, eager to get their hands on the wicked Alina. They were all devastated by her disturbed state of mind, and hopeful that this would bring her peace and let Christ into her heart. They thought they were helping. There is no excuse for what went down and obviously good intentions mean nothing when crimes are committed. People do a lot of horrible things in the guise of “helping”. But what I am saying is it is the casual and everyday representation of these people as not in any way, shape or form evil, that is the most devastating commentary in the film. Again, I suppose if you have a kneejerk hostile reaction to priests and nuns, all of this may look very different. I obviously do not have a kneejerk hostile reaction (I’ve got tons of awesome nuns in my family, it’s not like this weird foreign thing to me that people would submit to such a life). But either reaction is obviously valid, it depends on where you are coming from. The film can take all of it.
Life in the monastery is not presented in Beyond the Hills as some freaky cult, “Papa” nomenclature notwithstanding. It looks like a religious life, filled with silence, prayer, hard work, and good works. It requires sacrifice and deprivation, and yet it also provides peace and serenity. It’s not for everyone.
But once the wheel is set in motion for the exorcism, nothing can stop it. It is freezing, and there has been a huge snowfall. Alina is restrained (and I worried for the actress when she was thrashing about – it looks completely real) and kept in the chapel for days on end, bound and gagged. Voichita is beside herself. Every time Alina catches her eye through the window, she starts thrashing against her bonds, and it is so piteous to behold, so heartbreaking, that I thought I could not bear it.
Filmed in the dead of winter, you can see people’s breaths in every scene, even in the interior scenes. This isn’t a situation where people are sucking on ice to get the effect, they really are that freezing. Their fingers look like little pale-blue icicles. The light is cold and beautiful, filmed with spectacular simplicity by cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who also shot 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Cinema is all about the accurate capturing of light, and Mutu is a master. The nuns look freezing and pale, the light struggling through the simple panes of glass is pearly and clear, and the snow crunches under everyone’s feet. We become so accustomed to more orchestrated cinema, with more obvious artificial effects, that it is startling to watch Beyond the Hills, in its plain almost-Amish depiction of real activities like shoveling, or cooking, or drawing water from the well. The atmosphere is both beautiful and forbidding.
The final half hour of the film is excruciating. The calm eerily quiet long-take mood of the earlier sections shatters. We still have the long takes, the one shots, but they are now filled with screams and heartbreaking cries, chaotic movement, and panicked gestures. It feels totally out of control.
The acting is magnificent. Every single nun is part of the whole picture, and each one emerges as a fully realized human being, with a backstory, and a history. This isn’t done via monologue or closeups, it is merely done by spending time with these simple women, and watching what they do, listening to their conversation as they prepare meals.
Cristina Flutur, as Alina, gives one of the best performances of 2012. Life has been terrible to this young woman. She is destroyed already, long before the film starts. Her only saving grace was her relationship with Voichita, a place where she could be soft and vulnerable, where she felt safe. Having that denied her is not just a tragedy. It is a banishment. Alina was always going to have problems. She is already broken when she gets off that train in the first scene. Flutur is fearless in showing Alina’s determination, her blind rage, her jealousy, and her terror at being left alone. It is a great performance, a masterpiece of heartbreak and madness.
And Cosmina Stratan, as Voichita, is devastating as the young woman so fearful for her friend’s mind, and desperate to help in any way. She loves her life in the monastery, and it seems to suit her. But she feels loyalty to Alina, and also is frightened at the change in her friend.
In one of the final scenes, crowded with people, I slowly became aware of Voichita in the background, as the conversation was happening in the foreground. My eyes “zoomed in” on Voichita in the background.
I had no idea how long she was standing back there, because so much else had been going on in the long-shot scene with the same camera angle. But once I saw her back there, I couldn’t look away. A lot is happening on her face. She is helpless. She is upset. She is not in tears.
No. She is staring at Papa. And the look on her face turned my blood to ice.
The tragedy here is all Alina’s and I would never suggest otherwise.
But the loss of faith that I saw crack open in Voichita’s face is part of the tragedy of this terrible tale.
I walked out of Beyond the Hills exhausted and wrung dry. I was so glad to escape and I felt guilty about feeling like that. Alina couldn’t escape. Alina haunted me for the rest of the day.
Beyond the Hills is still out in theatres. Don’t miss it. One of the best films of the year.