Beyond the Hills: Offscreen Cinema

Beyond the Hills: Offscreen Cinema

On Film / Essays — May 21, 2018

Beyond the Hills (2012) tells the story of a real-life Romanian tragedy that attracted international media attention in 2005: the death of a young woman submitted to a shockingly medieval exorcism at a small monastery in Moldavia. The monastery was located near director Cristian Mungiu’s hometown, so it is not by chance that this third feature by one of the most important filmmakers in contemporary European cinema explores this incident. But the film, a masterpiece based on two nonfiction novels by former BBC reporter Tatiana Niculescu Bran, is not just of narrative interest, though it certainly is that; it is also a remarkable further demonstration of Mungiu’s cinematic vision, which first came to international recognition five years earlier with the success of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Like 4 Months, Beyond the Hills was awarded major prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. The director, a key figure of the New Romanian Cinema, created in Beyond the Hills the work of a mature auteur, an artist who had developed his own distinctive approach to cinema.

When the film was released, many Romanian and international critics glibly described it as a “social drama,” or even a “social tragedy.” But the way Beyond the Hills tells its story of brutal religious practices and deplorable social conditions is not as simple as it seems. Mungiu lays out the events that lead to the exorcism and death of Alina (the real young woman’s name was Maricica Irina Cornici): Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichița (Cosmina Stratan) grew up together in an orphanage, where they seem to have had an intimate relationship; Voichița has become a novice nun within the monastery’s small, austere Orthodox community, which is headed by an austere but charismatic priest, while Alina has been working in Germany; Alina comes to the monastery to try to convince Voichița to leave with her, then starts to unravel emotionally, setting in motion the misguided interventions that ultimately end her life. The director is not making a political movie, motivated by a desire to criticize post-Communist institutions that are clearly dysfunctional, but rather creating a tapestry of life as it is lived in contemporary Romania, in order to plunge the viewer into the world of the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and the helpless in the face of institutions (the monastery, hospitals, the police, social services). In fact, in his reconstruction of the Holy Trinity monastery, on the fringes of the small and impoverished town of Tanacu, the director avoids any hint of didacticism. He purposely omits some of the most dramatic elements of Alina and Voichița’s backstory—we are never directly exposed to the sexual abuse endured by the orphan girls during their institutionalization, for example. Nor does he explicate the conditions in Romania that are his story’s backdrop: the slavery and exploitation of child labor, the backwardness of a patriarchal society whose quality of life is ranked among the lowest in Europe, and where a third of homes lack the most basic conveniences. Of course, the absence of overt social commentary does not mean an absence of social relevance or of conscience, but key to understanding Mungiu’s work is being aware of his fundamentally neorealist approach to filmmaking, which demands that cinematic objectivity be maintained in the treatment of social reality, to avoid intervening in the viewer’s understanding of that reality.

Within Romania, many viewers have criticized the director for his dark depictions of their society. The most aggressive attacks against Beyond the Hills came from representatives of the Orthodox Church, the country’s dominant religious denomination. Accused of being anticlerical, even denigratory, the film was seen by some officials as an insult to their faith. The director was charged with ideologically deforming reality, promoting Western values by portraying a lesbian relationship, and falsifying the events he was depicting (the fact is, many of the priest’s negative opinions about the West, along with his blunt denunciation of sexual liberties and the abandonment of the “rightful faith,” are ideas that are regularly promoted by the church media). The nuns and priest as Mungiu presents them are never caricatured or treated with prejudice but, rather, fully humanized and contextualized.


“The finesse of Mungiu’s observations about human nature results in stirring introspections into the unknown dimensions of the soul.”

What is more, Beyond the Hills is replete with religious references, and they enrich the film aesthetically; there is no revisionist impulse toward Christianity here as in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s masterpiece The Gospel According to St. Matthew. Beyond the Hills is visually consistent with the imagery of Orthodox iconography, often showing that imagery directly. Mungiu explores the Byzantine images as aesthetic objects, quietly appreciating their beauty. The three iconic representations that are traditionally displayed in Romanian churches—the Crucifixion, the Holy Mother and Child, and the Last Supper—are all seen recurrently in the film. The background of the monastery provides not only the social reality of the film but also a deeper, spiritual dimension within that reality. Some of Mungiu’s references are easy to grasp, as when the exorcised Alina is physically chained to a wooden cross. Others are subtler, as when we see, displayed on the wall of the church, an atypical painting, representing not only the mother and child but also Joseph beside them.  

The directors of the New Romanian Cinema, Mungiu among them, all practice a kind of multilayered intertextuality in their filmmaking, most commonly by revisiting the canonical genres of international cinema. Clearly, a movie about exorcism cannot be understood without examining the way it indirectly reflects horror movies like The Exorcist. By implicitly acknowledging such productions, the Romanian moviemaker is able to explore more profoundly the possibilities of his or her own cinema. Mungiu, more than most of his cohort, operates at a subtextual level. His narrative frameworks serve only to provide the structure for subtler and more hidden meanings to develop. All his movies contain stories within stories, and Beyond the Hills demonstrates particularly well the logic of Mungiu’s offscreen cinema. This film is never about only what we see immediately in its visual field; much of the storytelling takes place outside the frame itself, and each sequence suggests several stories unfolding within the main one. One of  the best illustrations of this mode of cinematic telling is the fact that a central element of the plot—Voichița and Alina’s time at the Bârlad orphanage—is never discussed directly. Brief references (like the interview at the police station, in which an officer interrogates Voichița about a German citizen who took photos of the orphaned children) are pieces that the spectator must use to mentally reconstruct the larger puzzle of what is not explicit. The same goes for the intimate relationship between the two young women, which, although it is openly discussed in Niculescu Bran’s novels, is never directly revealed in the film. Nearly every scene contains some such partially visible story—the pregnant girl who jumped to her death, the people who believe that cancer can be miraculously healed, the nun who ran away from her abusive husband, the doctor who uses witchcraft to keep her husband from abandoning her for a younger woman.

This complex narrative style is what makes Mungiu one of the most astute psychologists of contemporary cinema. The finesse of his observations about human nature results in stirring introspections into the unknown dimensions of the soul. In Beyond the Hills, an obvious Freudian scenario is set up through the figure of the priest, played by Valeriu Andriuță, who controls the monastery and is called Tati (Papa), with help from the Mother Superior, called Mami (Mama). They function as manifestations of the superego, and the director explores the inner drama of the main characters through them. Alina wants to take Voichița with her back to Germany, where she has apparently found work for both of them, but she finds that her object of desire is no longer available. First, she is not allowed to sleep in the same bed as Voichița, then Voichița tells her that her religious transformation will not allow them to be intimate any longer, and, finally, Alina realizes that her friend will not leave with her. It is at this point that Alina becomes a disruptive force, and her id is unleashed against “Tati,” against what she perceives as depriving her of the object of her desire. The resulting cycle of violence, which begins with Alina physically attacking Tati (whom she believes has a sexual relationship with Voichița) and ends with the exorcism, is accompanied by psychological damage. Devoured by jealousy and suspicion, helpless in her efforts to revive her relationship with Voichița, Alina falls into darkness.

Like Otilia and Găbiță, the friends at the center of 4 Months, Alina and Voichița function as an animus-anima pair, and their tragic destiny is brought about by a similar form of hubris. Alina tries to save Voichița but fails terribly. The two young women face impossible choices—the ship on which Alina dreams they will get jobs constitutes a potent metaphor for the unattainability of escape for them. As in his masterpiece about abortion in Communist Romania, the director explores the intricate moral consequences of human decisions, and to see these characters simply as victims of their social conditions would, again, be too narrow. Having brilliantly chosen his two young leads, Stratan and Flutur (jointly awarded the best actress prize at Cannes for their remarkable performances), Mungiu builds their inner struggles and the complex psychological dynamics between them by way of small, nonverbal cues, fugitive smiles and frowns, gestures like Voichița’s sign of the cross as she passes a church on a bus, or Alina always asking “Why?” and never getting any answers. Mungiu deserves praise as a director who explores the problems of women with depth and compassion, and who has brought to the screen some of the most complex female characters in Romanian cinema.

Another important dimension of Beyond the Hills, and another way it reaches beyond overt social criticism, is the way it strives to illuminate the Romanian collective psyche, as illustrated by the scene in which Alina looks back at the town while climbing uphill toward the monastery. There are multiple significations here, from the social uncertainty of the character and those around her to the biblical and folkloric references and other semiotic suggestions of the title, about lives taking place beyond. The title must also be understood as a direct reference not only to a social space—that of a backward society—but also to a cultural reality. This is “the eternal Romania,” an atemporal civilization based on myths like the one that calls it “the garden of the Mother of God.” At this level, Mungiu sharply reconstructs his home country as a land where time has stopped, where people exist in the backwaters of history. 

Director Cristian Mungiu

Perhaps even more relevant than this spatial and social “beyond” is what can be described as the emotional and psychological “in-between” of Beyond the Hills. Just as Voichița acts as an intermediary of sorts between religious and secular life, all the characters in this film exist in some kind of liminal state. In the no-man’s-land of moral incertitude and emotional imbalance that is the world as Mungiu depicts it, such in-betweenness appears to be unavoidable. Alina is the most powerful expression of this inevitability; she never manages to find her own place, and her only escape from her in-betweenness is death. On a closer look, however, every scene of the movie seems to feature somebody who is caught between two realms. Even at the monastery, the discussions are never only about spiritual things—the material problems of firewood and food intrude, expressions of the simultaneous existence in two incompatible realities of the priest and nuns. Add to that the constant back-and-forth movement of all the characters—Alina has come to Romania from Germany, Voichița moves between the monastery and the city, the nuns take Alina to the hospital, only to have the doctors release her back to the monastery. Structurally, the entire movie is about displacement, taking us from the outside world (the train station) to the spiritual world (the monastery), then to the city (the orphanage), and the homes of various institutions (the police station, etc.), only to bring us back to the monastery, then return to the hospital. This existence in between ultimately leads to tragedy. The priest and the nuns believe they are helping Alina but fail to do so, with horrific results. The doctors, the policemen, the surrogate family—they are all driven by the best of intentions yet are unable to provide any meaningful support. The failure of authorities, the failure of social solidarity, and the personal failures of individuals result from this overarching and inescapable uncertainty.

The film grammar itself underscores this aspect of Beyond the Hills. While in the first part of the movie the focus is on Voichița, the camera later recenters on Alina. This technique, also practiced brilliantly in 4 Months, demonstrates the strength of an observational style in cinema—the handheld, subjective camera allows the viewer to be a deeply involved participant in the story, not a detached observer. The lack of cutting within scenes and the use of exclusively diegetic sound—the absence of interventions from outside the cinematic reality—deepen this effect, and provide an aesthetic experience that has become a hallmark of the New Romanian Cinema. Beyond the Hills is constructed in series of long shots, expertly handled by Oleg Mutu, the director of photography on several important movies of this generation (also including Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu and 4 Months), and Mungiu paints a cinematic fresco with the help of the responsive camera. From the opening sequence—in which Voichița makes her way through a crowd of travelers, followed by the camera, which places the viewer in her immediate perspective—to the final scene, in which the metaphorical sullying of the screen suggests the inescapability of the real, Mungiu uses the camera as a uniquely sensitive instrument. This is amplified by the use of naturally desaturated color in the film; clothing, locations, and objects are all in cold or neutral tones, illustrating the emptied-out nature of the characters’ reality.

Mungiu’s approach to filmmaking was founded on devices developed by the many European new waves that preceded the Romanian one, and he shares many aesthetic and narrative strategies with other directors of the New Romanian Cinema, but he has also, since the beginning of his career, been interested in exploring the limits of the art form. And it is with Beyond the Hills that he came into his own as a complete auteur, having fully evolved, in the most nuanced way possible, the tropes and tools that so clearly mark his films as his own, and that so clearly mark him as one of the most insightful directors in contemporary cinema.