Movie Review: Beyond the Hills
Rating: Not Rated
Length: 150 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 1, 2012
Directed by: Cristian Mungiu
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
In "Beyond the Hills," two young women grow up in an orphanage to become close friends. Unfortunately, the friendship between the two is threatened when one is accorded refuge at a Romanian convent but the other prefers to remain in Germany.
In the movie, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) are two women in their mid-twenties who have forged an admirable friendship. When they reunite after several years of living apart, Voichita asks Alina to stay with her in Romania. The latter, however, is reluctant to leave Germany, where she believes she has found companionship with other women and a lone priest (Valeriu Andriuta) who guides them. Voichita, who lives in a monastery, also believes that God is the cure for the loneliness she had been feeling all along. The presence of her childhood friend in the monastery forces her to reexamine her beliefs, something her friends do not view too kindly.
It is interesting to note that most of the scenes in "Beyond the Hills" are based on real events that took place in Romania a few years back. The film is laced with occasional black humor, an example of which is the scene where a medical doctor sends Alina back to the monastery with the instruction to read the scriptures for her ailments. While the movie may be viewed as a gentle mockery on religion, the major themes it deals with are rather serious matters. The overriding theme here is that religion is generally a good thing, but it can also be a devastating tool in the hands of the wrong people.
One of the major themes in the film is that of misguided obedience. This is a subject that has been examined by numerous filmmakers, but American and European filmmakers have handled it very differently. To a great extent, the Americans have been fascinated with the cultic relationship between charismatic leaders and their single victims. Examples of movies in this genre include "The Master" and "Martha Marcy May." Some critics opine that this is due to the absence of large-scale social control in America. On the other hand, the Europeans are well versed with the cult-like social control of the masses. Few films capture this fact like "Beyond the Hills" does.
Voichita, a novice in a Romanian Orthodox Monastery, wants her friend to stay a little bit longer in the monastery with the hope that she too may become a nun one day. This sets the mood for the emotional and spiritual clashes for the rest of the movie. The monastery, which is a religious place, is filled with serious social control. Perhaps this is a condemnation of the religious extremism that characterized the Romanian totalitarian regime of the period. While some may argue that this treatment is not new, and this may be so given that movies such as "The White Ribbon" have dealt with similar themes, Mungiu deals with it in a rather interesting manner.
The friendship between the two is also revealed to have a romantic angle. In fact, the two shared romantic feelings long before Voichita decided to enter the monastery. When the two friends prepare to go to sleep on their first meeting together, Voichita insists on separate beds but Alina wants them to share one. Her rubbing of oil on Alina's skin is filled with palpable sexual tension, something that Voichita struggles to ignore. It is her adherence to the strict laws of Romanian Orthodoxy that sets the stage for this reluctance.
Mungiu's brand of storytelling is slow, albeit effective. He decided to let the story take its time and absorb itself in the intricacies of the daily routines of monastic life. The rhythms of the film clearly reveal Alina's feelings of confinement that conflict with Voichita's sense of calmness and belongingness. These feelings are revealed objectively because the director decided to let the story speak for itself. The long, deliberate takes of the film may be demanding, but they achieve their intended purpose and are clearly engrossing. Here, the genius of the cinematographer Oleg Mutu must be given credit for a job well done.
Ultimately, this film is both emphatic and analytical. In the hands of other people, it would have been easy for the movie to come out sensational, but Mungiu and his team knew how to avoid that. If the ingenuity shown in making "Beyond the Hills" and "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" is anything to go buy, then movie fans can wait with abated breath for any movie Cristian Mungiu decides to work on.