Candlelight flickers in a summer breeze, as a confining darkness descends upon a screaming girl chained to a makeshift cross. The prayers of St. Basil swirl violently over her, spoken by a priest and four nuns who believe the woman is possessed by a demon. Every anguished moment echoes along the walls, and soon after three days without food or water, the woman is dead and the priest and nuns arrested for murder. Led away by the authorities, the priest with his fiery red beard, looks at his distorted reflection in the gathered camera lenses and says, “You can’t take the devil out of people with pills.”
The unfortunate events of this 2005 incident at a monastery in Tanacu Romania, and documented by a local television station, provided much of the foundation for director Cristian Mungiu’s latest film Beyond The Hills. Set in an isolated Orthodox convent in Romania, the story follows Alina (played by Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (played by Cosmina Stratan) who have known each other since their days growing up in an orphanage. Having spent several years living abroad in Germany, Alina wants Voichita to return with her to Germany, but Voichita has recently found comfort and security in the role of a nun and refuses. Attempting to win back Voichita’s affection, Alina challenges a priest and is sent to a hospital after acting out violently towards the members of the monastery. Upon returning, Alina is included in the monastic routine, but her condition quickly worsens, with the priest and nuns suspecting that she might be possessed. Soon, the debate of performing an exorcism emerges, which will test the limits of love and religious devotion for everyone involved.
Inspired by the non-fiction novels and reporting of BBC correspondent Tatiana Niculescu Bran, the narrative allows Mungiu to explore the dynamic of love and free will and how love, in all its incarnations, can transform the concepts of good and evil into blurred perspectives of uncertainty. Mungiu says, “Most of the greatest mistakes of this world have been made in the name of faith, and with the absolute conviction they were done for a good cause.”
By setting the story around two characters who have shared both a familial and sexual bond, and having those personas controlled and interpreted by novice film actors (this is the first feature for both Stratan and Flutur), what you get in turn are the complex and passionate emotions of human beings reaching towards personal and societal maturity, and the fears and frustrations of trying to adapt and survive in an environment that is foreign and at times illogical.
With the assistance of Oleg Mutu’s cinematography (who worked with Mungiu on his previous film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) and production design by Calin Papura and Mihaela Poenaru (the two had the job of building the entire monastery set in often minus 15 degree weather), the setting itself becomes this engaging mesh of beauty and melancholy, and like the paintings of Romanian artist Nicolae Grigorescu, allows for an alternating effect of vibrancy and dark mystery exploring the cavernous complexities of a land battling to hold onto its traditions while trying to progress into the future.
Mungiu says, “The film speaks about a region of the world-like many others-where longtime exposure to an endless succession of misfortunes and atrocities of all kinds has led to a breed of inert people who have lost their normal reactions in front of normal stimuli.”
Every component contained within the scenes has a purpose, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. Through this carefully constructed subtlety, the environment itself appears as this organic, maze-like extension of the characters leading them towards a much desired escape.
This though can bring on unexpected consequences, and as Mungiu shows quite impressively, an individual’s escape from one corridor may lead to a far more harrowing and disastrous trap.
Beyond the Hills opens in NY and LA on March 8th, with a national rollout to follow.