Director/writer Cristian Mungiu returns with Beyond the Hills, another focused, intense drama oozing stark irony. If the Romanian New Wave of filmmakers has a star, Mungiu remains at the top of this group. His 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) remains the most viscerally stirring dramas of the scene. Its intimate drama following two young women trying to find one of them a “doctor” to perform an illegal abortion in communist-era Romania walked a powerful line of both social statement and chilling human-interest tale.
After five years, Mungiu returns with a more tonally subdued feature film but no less potent in drama designed to illuminate a larger social picture. He remains an efficient writer who never wastes a word of dialogue, as he builds toward a heart-breaking revelation that illuminates the stubborn divides that rises from righteous ideology. For Beyond the Hills Mungiu examines the relationship of two women who met as children in an orphanage, became lovers and went separate ways as adults. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) joined a Christian convent in the town of the orphanage. Alina (Cristina Flutur) went to Germany to work as a waitress.
The film picks up with Alina’s return. After running toward Voichita at a train station, barely escaping being struck by a train, Alina embraces Voichita and breaks down into intense sobs. Voichita, dressed head to toe in black, hugs her and tells her to calm down. It makes for a vivid set up to the baggage between these two young women, and the film only builds from there. The two leads bring much humanity to their roles. When Alina lays out on a small bed for a back rub in Voichita’s tiny room and turns over to expose her breasts, she tells her, “It’s been real hard without you, Voichita.” The tension between the two is loaded with both history and a new gulf between them. The yearning for one another carries a heart-breaking weight throughout much of the movie thanks to the dynamic between these two actresses. From simple glances to scenes of dialogue, the pair maintain a tragic magnetism whenever they share screen time. It is no wonder the two of them shared the Award for Best Actress at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.
The drama of the film comes from not only the intensity of this tension, but the circumstances in which it both gestates and festers in: the half-built New Hill Monastery. The microcosm of the symbolically incomplete monastery, with its bearded leader who the women refer to as “Papa” (Valeriu Andriuta) and its elder mother superior (Dana Tapalaga), offer a void Voichita both needed as an orphan and can never fully replace. Alina’s meek attempts to fit in only heighten the false sense of family Voichita has found at the monastery. Alina’s drive to win back her former lover, and her attempts to act pious would be humorous were it not weighed down by an ominous fear of sin perpetuated by the New Hill’s dark-robed inhabitants.
Though there are some extreme fits of conflict mostly between the passionate Alina and the righteous priest, Mingiu knows the buildup of drama lies in some of the most mundane places, and he never wastes a moment. When the nuns play a word game while preparing a meal in the kitchen, their trivial distraction is broken by the arrival of Alina and Voichita, whose entrance decimates the happy chatter, as all the young women turn to stare at them for a brief loaded second, their varied pale faces and dark eyes all trained on the couple. The conflicts that arise among the film’s various characters build to an almost suffocating pitch until it culminates with such jaw-dropping heights, you may just feel your stomach sink by film’s end. If Mingiu were not such a master craftsman of drama, it would feel miraculous for a film that runs just over two-and-a-half hours to not only maintain such structure but also build on it toward a powerful ending.
Anyone who admired the director’s breakthrough film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days will not be disappointed. In fact, Beyond the Hills maybe the stronger of the two because he does so much more with what does not happen on screen, or is hidden from view, than what he showed in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. If his new film’s run-time sounds much longer, it does not feel it. Though there are moments of visual cunning (the black-robed nuns bundled close together on the property of the snow-covered monastery as they move something on the grounds offers one particularly loaded scene that will take one’s breath away), Beyond the Hills is not a movie about dwelling in mood, but about pushing the limits of the drama to an end that winds up taking a rather morbid turn. Between the focused acting, the efficient script and the low-key cinematography that mostly keeps its distance from the players, avoiding sentiment (there is also no music score), Mingiu once again reveals himself as one of Romania’s strongest visual storytellers.
Beyond the Hills is in Romanian with English subtitles, runs 150 minutes and is not rated (the sexuality is in the tension and there’s also violence). It opened at the Miami Beach Cinematheque this past Friday, April 12, and plays there through Thursday, April 18. The theater loaned me a DVD screener for the purposes of this review. The film is also playing, in the South Florida area, at the Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami Coral Gables campus, through Sunday April 14 and the Tower Theater in Miami through Thursday, April 18. It then opens further north in Boca Raton on April 19 at Living Room Theaters. Finally, it will appear in Fort Lauderdale at the Cinema Paradiso, on April 26, where it will play three days only through May 2. It may also be playing elsewhere nationwide; visit the movie’s homepage via IFC Films to search for screening dates via zip code.