Likely to become known as the Romanian exorcism drama that nobody saw, “Beyond the Hills” is an inimitably harrowing and immensely human story about friendship, devotion and what happens when faith goes horribly wrong. A wealth of merits compensate for an excessive running time in this serious, satisfying 152 minutes of world cinema.
The director is Cristian Mungiu, who made “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 days,” an abortion-themed thriller.
This time, working from two fact-based novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, he delivers a drama that is similarly realistic in tone and focused on two 20-something female friends.
Their scenario, however, is highly different and possibly even more treacherous.
Set in contemporary times at a Romanian Orthodox monastery that suggests an earlier eon, the film begins with the reunion of Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), a convent novice, and Alina (Cristina Flutur), who lives in Germany. The two grew up at an orphanage, where they shared a close and probably romantic relationship, and the intensity of their embrace suggests that something deep and damaged links them.
Alina has returned to Romania to take Voichita away with her. Devastated when Voichita doesn’t want to leave the religious life, Alina behaves desperately and disruptively. She threatens suicide.
She has seizures.
Voichita tries to bring Alina peace by introducing her to the convent’s religious regimens. But when Alina worsens, the monastery’s priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and mother superior (Dana Tapalaga) decide that an exorcism is needed.
As secular vs. religious struggles ensue between Alina and the priest, Mungiu seems to be aiming for a suspense level similar to that of “4 Months.” He doesn’t succeed. The long running time seems largely responsible as incidents begin to feel repetitive.
Additionally, Mungiu gives Alina a backstory too skimpy to enable viewers to adequately grasp Alina’s anguish.
Like Michael Haneke and Abbas Kiarostami, Mungiu deliberately leaves spaces to fill. While often satisfying, this approach, even in the ablest hands, is sometimes frustrating.
Still, the intelligent and immersing film triumphs as a tale of friendship, a psychodrama, a Romanian-condition story, a human tragedy and a demonstration of how effective, in these days of the 3-D mega-fantasy, realist storytelling can be.
Smartly, Mungiu indicts the church while treating the priest not as a one-note villain, but as a well-meaning fanatic whose actions prove horrifying. The use of extended takes and the constant inclusion of detail, in everything from dinner-table talk to doctor-patient dynamics, produces an engrossingly textured picture.
Stratan and Flutur, making their feature-film debuts, are beautifully in sync with Mungiu’s naturalistic and humane tone.
The film’s appearance is also notable. A stark, spare Romanian landscape combined with a painterly beauty makes bleakness striking.