In the 2007 Cannes film festival, Cristian Mungiu caused a sensation by landing the Palme d’or for the austere 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and in doing so sealed the prominence of the Romanian New Wave in the global cinephilic consciousness. The hype around this movement has largely died down in the five years since then, and Mungiu followed the devastating 4/3/2 with the comparatively flimsy omnibus Tales of the Golden Age (MIFF 09), but his new effort, premiering at Cannes five years after his first outing, is a strong return to form. Notably, Mungiu shifts the political tone from the overt denunciation of the Ceausescu era in 4/3/2 to a more allegorical, allusive sphere, which, while providing some allusions to Romanian history, focusses more on the foibles of human nature than the iniquities of a political system.
Based on a real life incident from 2005, which gained renown when reported by Romanian journalist Tatiana Niculescu Bran, Beyond the Hills centres on two women in their early 20s, who, having grown up in the same orphanage, seem to have had a romantic past with one another. Alina (Cristina Flutur) later pays a visit Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who has taken up residence in an Orthodox convent in a bout-du-monde part of rural Moldavia. At once, Alina feels singularly out of place, and is shocked at Voichita’s piety, which seems to have supplanted their earlier passion for one another, with the amour fou between them now a mostly one-way affair.
Alina’s pugnacious disruptiveness while staying in the convent is exacerbated by the epileptic fits she suffers, which lead to her being taken to a nearby hospital by the devout sisters. But in order to continue to be with Voichita, the lovelorn Alina impulsively decides to join her in her religious calling. Alina’s revolt against the stifling rules governing a life devoted to God does not abate, however, and after a series of rebellious acts, the convent’s nuns, goaded by the authoritarian parish priest, become convinced that she is subject to a satanic possession, and perform a violent exorcism on the young woman.
At two and a half hours, Beyond the Hills is a slow-burning film, but the protracted build-up serves to bolster the emotional punch of the film’s intense ending. The acting performances of the two unknown leads are pitch-perfect, and thoroughly merited the joint acting award the competition surprisingly bestowed upon them at Cannes. And with its icy photography and handheld camerawork by stalwart cinematographer Oleg Mutu (also responsible for Loznitsa’s In the Fog), Mungiu’s film is shot in archetypal Romanian New Wave style.
It would nonetheless be an injustice if Beyond the Hills went down in history as a belated footnote to a cinematic movement which seems to have faded from the aesthetic heights it reached towards the end of last decade. On the basis of this film, Mungiu’s career promises a more sustained longevity than any critically-hyped ‘new wave’ could hope to offer. Indeed, certain scenes in the film (the litany of sins which Alina is coerced to read out, the police interrogation at the film’s end), point not only to the film’s provenance within contemporary Romanian cinema, but, perhaps more importantly, indicate the development of a more individually expressive aesthetic in Mungiu’s work. We can only hope that it is not another five years before the director delivers us his next feature.
Daniel Fairfax is a doctoral candidate in Film Studies and Comparative Literature at Yale University, and a regular contributor to Senses of Cinema.