The hills of Cristian Mungiu's Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri) are a barren canvas of straw grass and leafless trees, framed by a winter's sky. Nothing, it would seem, can grow here — save for fanatical faith. It is on this barren land that a priest known as Papa (Valeriu Andriuta) has gathered his flock of novitiates in an Orthodox convent named New Hill, a series of low, drafty buildings that seem to have been erected in conscious defiance of the surroundings, held together by little more than true belief. Though a town looms in the near distance, inside New Hill there is no electricity, water is drawn from a well, and life is lived much as it was centuries ago. "Cloistered" doesn't even begin to describe it.
Based on real events that occurred in Romania's Moldova region in 2005 and were subsequently documented by author Tatiana Niculescu Bran in two fact-based novels, Beyond the Hills is about what happens when an outsider enters into this hermetic midst, stirring the air like that Heisenbergian particle that, once detected, can not remain unchanged. The visitor, Alina (Cristina Flutur), is the childhood friend of one of Papa's disciples, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). Now in their twenties, the women grew up together in the local orphanage, where the fierce Alina protected the more delicate Voichita from boys' hormones and other, more insidious threats to her virtue. The exact nature of the indignities they suffered is something Mungiu's film never spells out, much as it trusts that we can plainly see theirs is a relationship that goes beyond sisterly friendship.
Indeed, Alina arrives with train tickets in hand, ready to whisk Voichita to Germany and a life as guest workers on a cruise ship. Except Voichita appears in no hurry to leave — if she does, she tells Alina, Papa will never take her back. Instead, she entreats her friend to stay, and to let God into her heart too. And for a brief moment, it appears that Alina has chosen this righteous path, until she begins acting strangely possessive — or maybe just possessed. It's an agonizing tour de force, in which Flutur and Stratan (both screen newcomers) affect an acutely convincing bond — one a pious bride of Jesus, the other merely a jilted bride.
Mungiu, who drew international attention in 2007 with his second feature, the Ceausescu-era abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, has a deceptively simple style: Working again with the brilliant cinematographer Oleg Mutu, he shoots in long, unbroken takes that create a sense of events unfolding in real time, untainted by editorial manipulations. The camera itself is handheld but steady, ready to follow the actors wherever they go but always settling on careful, balanced compositions, some of which feature as many as a dozen characters masterfully arranged across the wide-screen frame to recall the frescos of Ghirlandaio and Da Vinci in their austere, black-habited grandeur.
If 4 Months became known as the "Romanian abortion movie," then Mungiu's latest may be equally doomed to shorthand as the "Romanian exorcism movie," though it's a term Beyond the Hills itself never invokes. Nor are there any levitation effects, spinning heads, or growling demonic voices. In contrast to the cinema's most famous exorcism, the one that consumes most of Mungiu's third act is a strictly artisanal affair, with a troubled young woman bound to a makeshift stretcher (though some will later call it a crucifix) and read the prayers intended to free her of the demons that haunt her, be they supernatural or merely personal.
It would be easy for Beyond the Hills to wag a shaming finger at the Orthodox Church for practices that will strike many as cruel, retrograde, and mired in superstition. But if anything, Mungiu affords the Church a grudging respect and reserves its anger for a society rife with institutional failure (a constant theme in the new Romanian cinema) and that turns a blind eye to suffering, leaving so many women with no place else to turn. (In God, Voichita remarks, she has found the path on which she will never be alone.) The haunting final image suggests how quickly such stories can be lost in the onward march of time, but for novels like Bran's and movies like this — which makes Beyond the Hills, above all else, a powerful and necessary act of reclamation.