Review of Beyond the Hills, Directed by Christian Mungiu
Here’s the bottom line on Beyond the Hills, the new film from Romania’s Christian Mungiu: It’s one of the best religious dramas in recent memory, on par with the great spiritual dramas from Ingmar Bergman in his prime (The Seventh Seal, The Virgin Spring, The Silence).
But like those Bergman films, Beyond the Hills is not designed to comfort. Based on a true story of an exorcism gone wrong, the film is, instead, a study of admirable devotion that goes astray. As such the story will leave audiences uneasy about its two female protagonists and the theological convictions that drive the story forward.
The film’s first shot follows Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) from behind as she searches a train station for her friend Alina (Cristina Flutur). The camerawork will be familiar to fans of Belgium’s Dardennes brothers (The Son) or those who remember Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, a more mainstream film with a similar aesthetic. But Hills is from Mungiu, a pioneer of the new Romanian cinema, and soon the trademarks of that approach—long takes, minimalism, realism—become apparent.
Mungiu’s previous film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, also focused on two female characters under duress (trying to procure an abortion), and its moral complexity combined with Mungiu’s visual approach won fans and landed the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. More recently, Beyond the Hills’ two lead actresses shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes.
The awards are well deserved. Stratan and Flutur, both acting in their first feature film, have a rapport that suggests they bonded early in life—appropriate to their characters, whom we learn were raised together in an orphanage. As the story begins, Alina has come to visit Voichita, whom she hasn’t seen for a few years. In the interim, they’ve taken distinctly different paths. Voichita joined an Orthodox convent overseen by a priest (Valeriu Andriuta). Alina has been living in Germany, but life hasn’t been kind to her. She’s eager to reconnect with Voichita and the life they once shared.
At some point—we’re not told how long ago—the two women were more than friends, and Alina is angling to resume their relationship in full. But Voichita isn’t interested in romance. “I love you, but not like before,” she tells Alina. She’s moved on to a different kind of love, and a different Lover. The only thing she can offer Alina is encouragement to confess her sins and be made clean, as Voichita has.
The film’s complexity includes suggestions that Alina’s problems may be more than spiritual in nature. A doctor concludes that Alina—who sometimes hears voices, and whose father hanged himself when Alina was six—needs prescription drugs to deal with her problems, which grow more intense as Alina struggles to begin a new life with Voichita away from the convent. The news alarms the priest, who’s looking for a reason to kick Alina out of the community. “This isn’t a hotel, let alone a sanitarium,” he says, but Voichita persuades him that Alina’s best chance at finding direction and purpose is at the convent.
The story becomes a struggle between Voichita’s insistence that Alina remain among the God-focused community and Alina’s singular focus and purpose of re-establishing a physical relationship with Voichita. As Alina grows more desperate, the conflicted priest and compassionate Voichita do everything in their power to save Alina, believing her increasingly erratic behavior endangers her very soul.
Mungiu has made a film in which everyone tries earnestly to do what’s in the best interest of those for whom they care, with tragic results. Alina is sure Voichita’s newfound spirituality is no substitute for a physical relationship. Voichita wants Alina to find the forgiveness and spiritual direction Voichita herself has found. The priest wants to protect his flock. But Alina is also selfish, the priest domineering and Voichita too acquiescent.
Beyond the Hills is a penetrating religious drama, but not one that ends with epiphany and uplift. While the film could be read as an indictment of the church and its beliefs, its characters don’t make for easy villains. Whatever one thinks of the spiritual practices, rituals and intentions in Beyond the Hills, the story’s main point is how good intentions can lead us astray. As a detective who enters the story late says to those he’s investigating, “We need to acknowledge our mistakes.”
There are plenty of those to go around in Mungiu’s thought-provoking film, which leaves us wondering what we might have done differently to help Alina, and what our limits are in reaching out to those who don’t want help. A nun’s speculation that Alina “must be paying for some sin she committed” recalls John 9 1-3: “As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth. And His disciples asked Him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was neither that this man sinned, nor his parents; but it was so that the works of God might be displayed in him.’”
The outcome of John’s story is clear and inspiring. The outcome of Mungiu’s film is, at best, a question mark. We’re left to wonder what works of God have been shown in Beyond the Hills and what human truths it has laid bare.