BEYOND THE HILLS
Written and Directed by: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta
Have you ever seen a movie that you were totally on the fence about even months later? This may sound shocking but never have I seen a film so polarizing as writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s latest contribution. Part coming-of-age drama, part horror film, BEYOND THE HILLS represents the best and worst aspects of cinema and the humanity it portrays.
We first meet Alina (Cristina Flutur) at a train station as she is picked up by Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), her bestie from the orphanage where they grew up. Voichita sweeps Alina away to an Orthodox convent high in the hills of Romania, and viewers can immediately sense their relationship goes far deeper than just best friends. However, due to Voichita’s spiritual oath to serve God and Papa (Valeriu Andriuta), the Priest at the convent, the two can never be more than friends. The other nuns try to reach out to the atheist Alina but she refuses and sets out to challenge the Priest. When she’s sent to the hospital, everyone automatically assumes she’s possessed (because of course!), and they set out to help her find peace. However, peace never comes – disastrous consequences do.
There’s a lot of right hidden in this tale of wrong. Mungiu wisely avoids sharp edits and shoots everything in a master shot letting the full impact of the rising tensions and emotions have room to breathe. There’s also no musical score of any kind. He brilliantly lets the sequences build to a climax without being pushed over the edge by a swelling score. Finally, the film is bolstered by strong performances from the ensemble cast. It’s easy to see why the two leads tied for Best Actress at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Oleg Mutu’s stark cinematography is cold and bleak, echoing the film’s themes of unrequited love, and augments the stifling atmospheric tone.
Other themes that reverberate throughout the picture deal with what people are asked to do in the name of love, touching on free will and the consequences of one’s choices. However, there reaches a breaking point when the audience may say enough is enough. Why, when it’s made clear Voichita is never going to leave, doesn’t Alina high tail it out of there? What’s compelling her to stay? It sure as shit ain’t love. From there on out it plays like a torture film – on all levels. If it’s possible for a film to be both riveting and revolting at the same time, this one succeeds. It also shows its religious subjects as incredibly close minded and easily swayed, like lambs to the slaughter as this priest perverts the word of God to suit his needs. We go to the cinema to escape from these harsh realities and damning judgments. While it walks a fine line of not judging the characters’ actions, the narrative collapses under its own weight during the final, absolutely absurd twenty minutes. It will leave you angry and upset and render the journey null and void.
An audience’s suspension of disbelief can only go so far before a narrative collapses. Spectacular performances and provocative, stark filmmaking may engage viewers for much of the picture – but the maddening, exasperating turns of the story may send them running for the hills by the time it’s over.
2.5 out of 5
BEYOND THE HILLS opens on March 8 in New York and Los Angeles (at The Royal Theater in West LA). The film opens on March 15 in Pasadena, Encino and Orange County.