Beyond The Hills Directed by Cristian Mungiu Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta and Dana Tapalaga Release Date: March 14, 2013 Available now On Demand
Over the hills and far away from the faintest semblance of civilization rests a quaint, remote monastery in the wintery farm lands of contemporary Romania. The environment seems to fend off all qualities of society, most noticeably human feeling and human contact, in exchange for a devout connection with God. Appreciating the joys of human affection is totally taboo in monastic life, and yet the inhabitants of the monastery scarcely understand the absence of crucial and life-sustaining aspects of humanity. Being one with God is all they yearn for. Only an unswerving worship reigns supreme as sisters and a priest are over-determined to praise their God fervently, oblivious to everything that isn’t religious oriented. Director Cristian Mungiu’s perspective of this monastery in Beyond The Hills is astounding, as he evokes a bygone era when humans were petrified of what God’s wrath would incur.
The monastery is ruled over by a stern priest (Valeriu Andriuta) in his mid-thirties. His ideologies are extremely submerged in Catholic doctrines, implementing a punishment when the sisters tend to occasionally disobey the rules. The sisters, under the guidance of Mother superior (Dana Tapalaga), for the most part are obedient, adhering to specific tasks such as cleaning, tiling the fields, laundry, preparing meals, and listening intently to the priest. He doesn’t physically strike those who sin. Rather, he believes firmly in confessional, handing out an overwhelming amount of penance to the sisters who come forth with their sins. On a regular basis he roams the grounds, clenching on to his Bible and maintaining order. It is as though he is waiting, not fearfully but anxiously, for something to occur so he can smite the evil that threatens his domain.
Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), a young woman who decided to neglect the every day temptations of life and pursue a monastic lifestyle, is reminded of the temptations when she goes and meets her friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) at the train station. Alina is coming from Germany to rekindle her friendship with Voichita. Both were orphans at an orphanage. Voichita found God, while Alina appears to be hopelessly lost. Each woman is in a particular situation that forbids any form of union between the two.
The priest has granted Voichita the opportunity to greet Alina and have her stay at the monastery for the endurance of her visit with Voichita. Once there it is easy to perceive the difference between the two women’s behavior. First, there are blunt attempts at temptation when Alina asks Voichita to sleep with her. After squashing that temptation Alina resorts to more cunning methods such as removing all of her clothes when Voichita massages her aching back. More and more audacious attempts ensue, as she delights in defiling their appreciation for God. Finally, the façade of Alina’s breaks, leading those at the monastery to believe she is possessed by Satan (the film is based on a real-life exorcism gone wrong).
Alina can resemble an evil attempting to intrude into every holy aspect of the monastery and sow seeds of discord. She is an outsider being allowed to stay with the most holy and strict. Letting her in translates into letting society in, letting emotion in, letting sin in. The priest sees all this as leading to disobedience. This is exactly the kind of disobedience the priest abhors. Such an intrusion is similar to the impending doom the Cistercian monks in Xavier Beauvois’ Of Gods and Men encountered in their monastery due to a revolution occurring in their village.
Directors Mungiu and Beauvois each subject monastic life to terrible occurrences. While each director admires the perseverance and faithfulness of the monastery’s inhabitants, only one director (Mungiu) attempts to identify the superstitions and cruelties some zealots unknowingly harbor. This is where Beyond the Hills acquires the bulk of its power: by contemplating impartially the positive and negative ramifications of a religion. The film refuses to take sides. It doesn’t glorify spiritual authority nor does it empathize with loneliness or demonic possession.
There is an overwhelming menace in Mungiu’s film and also a permeating sense of dread that is brought to an apex when the film nears its climax. Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) captured the same menace as a pregnant woman is aided by her friend to arrange an illegal abortion in 1980’s Romania. 4 Months and Beyond the Hills are dark, haunting films that distinctly define a particular turmoil women have to endure. Each film has women relying on other women to remedy their predicament. They seek one another’s assistance not simply because they can relate to one another, but because there is an undiminished emotional connection between the two. Beyond the Hills can be interpreted numerous ways: exorcism gone wrong, a blind infatuation with a religion, evil versus good or a parable about the entire human race incapable of comprehending human behavior.