Romanian director Cristian Mungiu has delivered a brilliant, scary portrayal of irrationality and fear in Europe’s dark heart
We are way beyond the hills. For his new film in this year’s Competition, the Romanian Palme D’Or winner Cristian Mungiu has given us a captivating tragi-comedy of sexual hysteria and material want. This long movie is played out in a kind of real time, a mysterious secular passion play; Mungiu apparently based the action on the reportage of the BBC World Service’s Bucharest bureau chief Tatiana Niculescu Bran who wrote about a case in 2005, where a novice died after being subjected to an exorcism in Romania’s Tanacu monastery: an irrational horror at the heart of 21st-century Europe.
Fictionalising this real case, Mungiu brings his distinctive dramatic language, his flair for creating group-tableaux photographed from a single, static camera position, his skill in portraying intimate, embattled female relationships, and his shrewd connoisseurship of officialdom’s bland, harassed pomposities. In the final act, as the screw of fear is turned, the film seems to bear a weird resemblance to Lars Von Trier. Maybe this bizarre topic is such that the resemblance is inevitable.
Despite the exotic horror of its subject-matter, Beyond the Hills delivers a disturbing message about how we all construct our identities and sense of self to justify life-choices in which we may have had little choice. The action revolves around two young women, who knew each other in the grim orphanage where they brought up: pretty, moon-faced Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and fierce, sharp-featured Alina (Cristina Flutur). Both forced to leave at 18, Alina went to Germany for work which is vaguely described as waitressing and Voichita was taken in at a stern monastery with no electricity and compelled to be a nun. Perhaps inevitably, Voichita is now conditioned to be a pious, submissive believer and Alina a tough, self-reliant non-believer. But they are still in love, and when Alina returns to Romania so that Voichita can help her with her documents, and maybe return to Germany with her, their relationship comes to a crisis.
Mungiu shows that Voichita could quite easily have taken the decision to abandon the way of faith and leave the country with Alina: and we discover that the German connection appears to have arisen from a certain sleazy individual from Germany who was permitted to take “photos” of the orphanage girls in return for gifts. Maybe the work in Germany that awaits the two women isn’t exactly waitressing. But the papers were not in order, so their destinies are arbitrarily shifted another way: Alina comes to live in the orphanage, where Voichita infuriates her by talking about God all the time. Alina’s disruptive, sexually threatening presence causes mayhem from almost the very beginning; she acts out her own frustration and self-sacrificially intuits Voichita’s.
In the throes of violence and self-harm, Alina is taken to a hospital where a doctor appears to diagnose paranoid schizophrenia; but Alina is patently the only rational person in the monastery – a delusional madhouse presided over by an authoritarian priest (Valeriu Andriuta), a former power plant worker who turned to God after seeing an angel; he wants to deliver Alina from the evil that is inside her. And yet Mingiu’s film shows that the secular agencies of the state are at least as culpable: no one wants to look after Alina, and this leaves only the priest and his exorcism.
Beyond the Hills is an agonising, mysterious movie — it is the first event at this year’s festival which has come close to providing any controversy: there were whistles and jeers at the final blackout. But I found it enthralling, mysterious and intimately upsetting – a terrible demonstration of how poverty creates a space which irrational fear must fill.