“Beyond the Hills” attacks religion in a draining film that explains how faith and commitments can be destructive. It’s an interesting film in pointing out that sometimes the most damaging words are “we were only trying to help,” but over the top depressing when we realize those helpers are never going to learn.
The Romanian film by Palme D’Or winning director Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”) premiered at this year’s Cannes, taking home acting prizes for its two female leads and a Best Screenplay award, but it made its Chicago debut Friday night here at the Chicago International Film Festival. The movie will have a second screening Monday, October 15 at 8:30 at the AMC River East.
The film begins with the reunion of two best friends who once lived together in an orphanage. In the years that they’ve been separated, one remained in Romania and joined a monastery while the other went to Germany to work. The nun, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), has invited her friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) to stay at the monastery for a few days, but Alina intends to return to Germany and this time have Voichita come with her.
Alina has an intense attachment to her friend, a commitment to remain with her always and an inability to function without her. But Voichita no longer feels the same. Her love belongs to God now, and no one else.
This is the strict culture established in Voichita’s monastery by her orthodox priest (Valeriu Andriuta). “One must forget one’s love for other people to allow room only for Him. Other desires are sins,” he says, and Alina realizes that Voichita now seems to parrot the Priest’s every sentiment blindly.
What “Beyond the Hills” ultimately concerns is how this woman who can never fully give herself to God will try regardless in an attempt to win back her friend, only to be destroyed in the process.
It’s all told as a subdued character drama, staged with a cinematic simplicity and narrative authenticity that’s common to many Romanian films. You’ll notice how the film has no internal edits within scenes. Each shot takes us to a new location, and the extended long takes that remain affixed in a room reveal the film’s layers, scenes within scenes of out of focus characters animating the frame to provide an elegant subtext.
Take one of the film’s most jaw dropping scenes. A nun is reading aloud a list of over 400 sins for Alina to copy down so she can confess them later. She rattles them off furiously, and all the while, another nun sits quietly and knits as though this were a daily routine.
These are the sorts of cinematic gifts that elevate Mungiu’s work, but the film’s tone comes back to bite him when watching this blunt, bleak third act becomes absolutely torturous.
The scary thing about this monastery is that they’ll never see that there are more problems to life than God. If Alina is acting disturbed, surely it must be because there is a sin she has not yet confessed. The devil is still inside her. In a panicked moment Alina contemplates suicide, but just as the nuns calm her down, one waves a cross in her face and she goes berserk in a nervous fit.
It becomes clear from virtually the film’s onset that Alina’s deep problem with her relationship with Voichita is one that will never be matched by the church’s spiritual solutions. At first “Beyond the Hills” sets up more and more tests of faith for Alina to face, despite the pitiful realization that she’ll never get closer to the monastery’s strict standards. And before long, we’re forced to endure Alina’s pain at the church’s attempt at an exorcism. These people will never grow because they were acting on the will of God, and time and time again Mungiu makes this more than abundantly clear.
In a way then, “Beyond the Hills” exists as an extended shriek of pain. Over its 150 minutes the snow mounts and the subdued tension gets ever more uncomfortable. Perhaps the film would work better if it operated more as a genre horror film, one that clearly delineated these priests and nuns as truly nothing more than monstrous.
2 ½ stars