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.”
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