Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri, 2012)

Director/Screenwriter: Cristian Mungiu

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

After the break-out success and Palme d’Or win of his 2007 abortion drama, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu gained a kind of respect that tends to sanctify all successive efforts. I was knocked out by 4-3-2, but I find his newest film, Beyond the Hills, hard to parse. While adhering to the dogged realism and intensity of 4-3-2, Beyond the Hills is adapted from a novel, Deadly Confession, that itself is based on a 2005 exorcism attempt that shocked the Romanian public. The novel changed the story by making the young woman who underwent the exorcism a troubled friend of a nun instead of a nun herself and focusing on their relationship.

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Mungiu has been asked in many of the interviews he has given about the film why he focuses on relationships between women. In one he gave to Zimbio, he points out that two of his films have included male protagonists. He further states, “My films are story-driven, not character-driven, and I seldom consider the gender of the protagonists before deciding if I’m interested by a story or not. These two films with female protagonists do not only describe their relationship, but speak about matters like personal freedom, compromise, sacrifice, choices in life, the role of religion in society today, social indifference, love and friendship, violence, faith or free will—all issues that transcend the gender border.”

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Indeed, Beyond the Hills does touch on all these subjects, which is rather miraculous in itself, even for a film with a longish 155-minute running time, and the issues do have universal application. Nonetheless, unhappy consequences brought on by illegal abortion and manipulation in a community of female religious headed by a man reveal the kind of feminist agenda that can often be found more overtly in Iranian films, particularly those of Jafar Panahi. Mungiu explores his themes with a fair amount of subtlety, making room for individual intentions that tend to obscure the more global posturing of a feminist message. Unfortunately, by focusing on a 23-year-old woman outside the religious community—she is not observant and only goes through the motions of prayer and confession to please her friend—she becomes a completely unwilling victim. In addition, despite the many moments that feel true to life, in part because of Mungiu’s long takes that mimic the rhythms of real life, whether the film makes any kind of point largely depends upon the opinions of the audience. I have seen as many people view the film as a condemnation of superstition as think it is an exploitative exercise in violence against women. In my opinion, they’re both right.

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The film opens in a train station, where Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) meets Alina (Cristina Flutur), her roommate at the orphanage where they both lived. People jostle her, and trains obscure Alina, who seems in danger of being hit by one in her rush to embrace Voichita. It becomes clear in Alina’s intense focus on Voichita as they travel to the primitive monastery where Voichita is a novice that the women were once romantically involved. Alina has made the trip from Germany, where she lives, to bring Voichita back with her. Alina has given up her apartment and job and secured work for them both on a German riverboat as waitresses. But Voichita has changed her mind. She tries to let Alina down easy, but the single-minded woman refuses to go without her. Then Alina falls ill with a lung infection and must be rushed to the hospital. Having missed the riverboat and with no home to return to, Alina is allowed to stay on at the monastery to recover after Voichita persuades a reluctant Father (Valeriu Andriuta) that she will make no problems for them.

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Alas, Alina is troubled, possibly mentally ill, and becomes increasingly angry and disruptive. Eventually, Father and Mother (Dana Tapalaga) decide to “read” to Alina, and the rigors of an exorcism are filmed in excruciating, lengthy detail as the nuns craft a crude cross to which Alina is bound and gagged day and night, out of sight of the church congregants. The nuns carry her back and forth between an outbuilding and the church for the daily ritual, wash her when she soils herself, and deny her food and water to starve the demon that possesses her.

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Mungiu provides a window into the opportunities for exploitation in Romanian society. The rapid growth of monasteries founded by self-styled sages like Father may be traced to the rebound of religious freedom in the country, but many of the acolytes come from orphanages that turn their residents out when they reach 18. Voichita found a comfortable home and purpose at her monastery, but for others, such as one of the sisters who is still in contact with her abusive husband, the monastic life is perhaps the only option they have. Alina’s retarded brother Ionut (Ionut Ghinea) has a job at a car wash where he is given no protective uniform to keep him warm and, significantly, no wages. He also becomes a member of the monastic community, his free labor and frigid cell perhaps a step down from the car wash.

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The healthcare system seems to be the one bright spot in the country, and Alina receives adequate care there. Once back at the monastery, the nuns use her savings to pay for her medication, refuse her the rest she needs to recover, and eject her at one point to go live with her former foster parents. The couple have given away her room and stolen most of her savings, handing Mother back less than half of what she sent to them for safe keeping.

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I had a lot of different reactions while watching this film. I felt for Voichita’s struggle between two conflicting allegiances, one to a life that fulfills her and the other to a relationship that helped her survive the orphanage but that she has outgrown. The nuns, though largely undifferentiated by the script, seem to be a cohesive unit struggling in a primitive compound without electricity or heating any more sophisticated than a fireplace, and in constant need of money. I didn’t particularly like Alina, and I felt the nuns, particularly Mother, were genuinely spiritual and believed they were trying to help her. Father struck me as prideful, striving to make the monastery successful, worrying about when or if the church will be consecrated, and anxious that Alina could drive their small congregation away. In proceeding alone with an exorcism that he himself said required two priests and manipulating Ionut into giving consent as Alina’s next of kin, I questioned his motives, if not those of his followers.

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It is here that I started to feel queasy about the film. When winter arrives, it’s for real, and the visible breath of the actors shows just how cold it really is. Mungiu’s long takes necessitate long retakes if the actors flub any part of their performance; Mungiu reveals “we often shoot 20 or 30 takes and sometimes more.” I don’t wish to presume on the dedication of the entire film ensemble, but the harsh conditions of part of this shoot do give me pause about the level of pain and suffering a filmmaker—even an independent filmmaker of limited means—should be allowed to inflict. I might not have considered this question in the past—after all, Mungiu certainly isn’t the first director to demand so much from his cast and crew. But something about Father seems so like a projection of Mungiu’s personality, a believer in himself and his power justifying everyone’s faith and sacrifice.

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Much is made of Alina making a full confession of her sins to Father, with the nuns reading off a list of nearly 500 sins she might have committed in a grimly humorous scene. It is not revealed what she tells Father, but her lesbian relationship might have been part of it, a part Voichita appears not to have confessed herself. Thus, Voichita can be seen as Alina’s undoer in some sense, just as Gabita exploited and injured Otilia in 4-3-2. Mungiu seems to take a dim view of close female friendships, with the most dire outcomes seeming to be the inevitable result of such closeness.

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The film is beautiful to look at, the performances sophisticated and sincere, and the pacing fine for me, though perhaps too slow and deliberate for many. Beyond the Hills raises many important issues about relationships and religiosity, and Mungiu asserts that he is trying to be respectful of the characters by avoiding more voyeuristic shots (though watching Alina being chained to the cross does not seem particularly demure to me). However, by choosing such a sensational story and tacitly implicating modern society for its venal appetites and voyeurism, no matter how respectful Mungiu believes himself to be, we are drawn into the most cynical, and from my perspective, myopic conclusions.

  • Jon spoke:
    26th/03/2013 to 8:54 pm

    Marilyn,

    I haven’t seen this yet but will be seeing it on-demand in the near future. I can’t comment on much yet, but I’m curious about your concerns of the actors being subjected to long takes, multiple takes etc. in the cold. I would find it hard to believe that anyone is MAKING them do this. I mean it’s their choice to work on the film, and if they don’t want to, I’m sure someone else would take the job……but I am wondering exactly why you would feel these actors are being subjected to anything. It’s a job they’ve taken and are being paid for it as I see it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/03/2013 to 9:00 am

    Jon – Offering a paycheck is not justification for abuse. As someone who underwent severe bullying on a job, I believe it is incumbent upon all employers to look out for their workers, and that includes actors. You’ve heard people say, I’m sure, that actors should expect to give up humane treatment by paparazzi, fans, anyone in exchange for fame and fortune. I don’t happen to agree with that, and I do worry about people who feel they must submit to anything to be in a movie or get a paycheck. It shouldn’t be their job to decide between the work and their own safety. Particularly since this movie seems to reveal the abuses of religion, it inadvertently seems to reveal the abuses of the film industry.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    27th/03/2013 to 4:20 pm

    “However, by choosing such a sensational story and tacitly implicating modern society for its venal appetites and voyeurism, no matter how respectful Mungiu believes himself to be, we are drawn into the most cynical, and from my perspective, myopic conclusions.”

    Marilyn, this is one of your great essays, with a sensational final paragraph and innumerable insights throughout. I do however disagree with your assertion of myopia and that the film fails to bring everything together in the end. I actually like it even more than FOUR MONTHS, though the subject matter and setting here have always been particularly fascinating for me. The film could be described in a general sense as Robert Bresson meets BLACK NARCISSUS with an EXORCIST underpinning minus the hysteria. But the film in a sense is more horrific than the famed horror film, and makes superlative use of it’s winter setting in the obscure location. The matter of misguided faith and the presence of love and/or free will is compellingly examined in this austere work where acting and direction are accomplished with remarkable precision. Hence with all due respect to one of my favorite online friends, I found your final appraisal to be more cynical that Mongiu’s intent, which I do not see intended as such.

    But whether I agree or not (obviously I don’t) the review is just so brilliantly written and argued. Can’t ask for more than that.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    27th/03/2013 to 5:41 pm

    Sam – I understand that the nuance of the performances brings a lot to the ultimate tone of the film, but I really object to Mungiu’s vision of female friendships and female gullibility. It’s not that such relationships aren’t fraught – see Margaret Atwood for the ultimate examination of such – but I don’t see the condemnation of anyone but women and a modern society that is both exhibitionist (which Mungiu is in spades) and superstitious. That to me is myopic with regard to male prerogatives.

  • Jon spoke:
    28th/03/2013 to 7:34 am

    Marilyn,

    I’m certainly not disagreeing with you on principle and would never condone abuse in any facet. I guess until I hear from people who were in the movie or details of such abuse, it just seems kind of like assumptions at this point to make towards the film.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    28th/03/2013 to 7:50 am

    Jon – I understand the passion of the creative people involved, but as a working creative, I really think we need to get past this notion that the work is payment enough and worth any sacrifice. Our society should be honoring poets and playwrights, artists and actor, not treating them like crap because some bank examiner thinks it would be more fun to play Julius Caesar than what he does and takes his venom out on people who can, or because the super capitalists think that if you don’t make a million dollars, you’re worthless and deserve whatever treatment you get. I was in a debate with some younger writers about whether a professional should write for free. That is a no-brain “no” to me, but not to everyone. This kind of thinking is killing our society, and I think Mungiu is a hypocrite in this respect.

  • MattL spoke:
    1st/04/2013 to 10:29 pm

    I would say the film is not an exploitative exercise in violence against women. It is instead a film about that fact. I am surprised you don’t see that. In a couple interviews I read Mungiu said he wanted to stay as close to authentic as he could and just present the facts. That is the beauty of the film. He doesn’t beat you over the head with an anti-religious message. I don’t see how anyone could watch this film and think Mungiu is somehow condoning the actions of the kooky nuns and priest from their crime.

    The fact that you feel the nuns are truly devout, to me, shows how effective the film is because it means the filmmaker has made us realize that real people [good people] can believe and do weird things that – in this case – lead to death of an innocent victim.

    Re Female gullibility; One of the strengths of the film to me is that Alina is vulnerable. She is not a Hollywood female hero who makes clear and strong decisions. If she were the film would be different. She IS a victim and unfortunately does not have the intelligence or the wherewithal to make the right choices. This makes her far more real than, say, the girl in Hanna who is a pure Hollywood myth. I like to see women characters that are strong too but not all are. And at least this film doesn’t present her as just another sex object.

    Also what makes you think that just because scenes were shot in winter that the filmmaker was inflicting pain? Did any of the actors actually say this was the case? I would hope that you are not confusing the reality of the film from the reality of the shoot. They are two very different things. The actors are hired to play a part and show pain. That does not mean they are actually in pain. I’d have to ask how do you feel about Werner Herzog and his jungle pictures! : ^ )

  • Marilyn spoke:
    2nd/04/2013 to 9:22 pm

    Matt – Thanks for the considered comment, and no I don’t want all women in films to be kickass and strong. I definitely concede that these actors created real characters of some complexity. Nonetheless, Mungiu seems to be a director who is drawn to showing terrible things happening to women. He may have the best of intentions in doing that, and certainly other male directors have taken up this “cause” as well; in his case, I just feel like it’s too much, it’s voyeuristic with him. I can’t really explain that feeling, but it’s there, and I have to acknowledge it. I understand how others do not, but there you are.

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