Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri)

Directed by Cristian Mungiu

Cristian Mungiu doesn’t make films in a hurry. Graduation, recently on distribution in the UK, was the third of his despairing, savage yet compassionate full-length features (he also contributed a segment of the portmanteau Tales from the Golden Age) showing how society and systems can screw up their people. It’s nearly 5 years since this, his previous one, which in its turn came 5 years after his masterpiece 4 Months 3 Weeks 2 Days, Palme D’Or winner at the peak of the so-called ‘Romanian New Wave’ keuphoria.

Winner of the Best Screenplay and joint Best Actress awards at Cannes in 2012, this is a more slow-burning, at times overlong-feeling, but finally devastating indictment of Romanian society, like 4Months taking a friendship between young women as its template. An exorcism film, you might say, but at once more realistic and more alarming, even though less gothically sensational, than the genre usually allows.

Childhood friends and girlhood lovers Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur), brought up together in an orphanage, have gone their separate ways, Voichita to a small local nunnery, Alina to work as a waitress in Germany. Now Alina has come back to take Voichita away with her to the west. But time has changed things, the formerly intense relationship between them is no more, and Alina’s stay at the nunnery as she attempts to regain their intimacy and tempt her friend to join her away from Romania becomes increasingly manic and threatening. Their world is a grim one. The nunnery, seen first in all its ramshackle austerity as the camera follows the girls walking up over the snowy slopes to its little huddle of inadequate buildings, ‘beyond the hills’ from the scrappy little town, is basic, with water drawn from a well and no electricity. But Voichita seems almost radiantly happy there, and despite its physical deprivations it does indeed seem to be a haven which provides the half-dozen or so women there with reasonably fulfilled and contented lives – there even seems to be a waiting list. It’s pretty clear that Voichita now has the life she wants and would be unhappy in the rather dubious world of the west – and we never really know what the actuality of Alina’s ‘waitressing’ is.

Priest In charge is the gloomy ‘Papa’, but unlike the older male figure in 4 Months, and despite his later actions, he is not a figure of evil, but a man preoccupied with holding his community together, chasing funds from the distant authorities to keep it going. But a man whose god seems to bring no joy. It’s only with reluctance, really, that he’s drawn into performing the exorcism, after the health system has failed to deal with Alina’s dangerous behaviour. In contrast it is Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga) a lively and kindly presence there, who takes food down to the orphanage and finds a place at the nunnery for Alina’s ‘simple’ brother to work, who urges the exorcism.

When it does eventually come, it’s shocking, but also horrifically comic, the nuns rallying round to hammer together a makeshift cross-shaped wooden board for Alina to be tied to, losing themselves too much in the practical job in hand to think what a terrible act they are doing as they tie her down with the dog chain, and scuttling back and forth in the snow from chapel to living quarters in Benny-Hill fashion to avoid being seen by the townspeople arriving for a service.

Cinematography by Oleg Mutu, responsible for many of the most impressive recent films from eastern Europe, including 4 months and Mr Lazarescu, has created a desolate world where interiors are murky and outdoor scenes bleak and drained of colour, whose cold reaches out of the screen and slowly creeps inside you. And there’s a dizzy claustrophobia in his foreshortening shots – the people, mostly male, dark-clad, rushing by as Voichita hurries to meet her friend in the opening shot – patients laid out almost as if on one bed together in the hospital, the nuns crowding round their dinner table with its meagre fare.

It’s a world where mostly well-intentioned people, often ground down by hopelessness or ignorance, do awful things, or, almost worse, fail to do anything. Shadows of Mr Lazarescu hang around the penultimate hospital scene, where exhausted ambulance workers are told off for bringing in a body already dead, and the doctor is busy on her mobile phone even while dealing with it. The scientific and the spiritual have both failed Alina. And the final scene, as the police wait in their car in a sludgy potholed road with their pathetic load of potential criminals for their busy superior to call them up to the station – he’s busy with the case of a son murdering his mother and putting the pictures up on the internet – produces a final smack in the face, as the randomness and unfeeling nature of this world is shockingly encapsulated in the banal image of a shower of blinding, filthy water from passing traffic shooting across the car’s windscreen, and by extension, ours.

Originally seen at Tyneside Cinema Newcastle March 2013

 

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Graduation (Bacalaureat)

Directed by Cristian Mungiu

Earlier this year Romanians of all ages gathered in their thousands in a square in Bucharest to demonstrate against their state’s softening of anti-corruption laws, giving the rest of us an object lesson in how determined demonstration with a focussed aim can achieve much. The corruption we see being born here in Mungiu’s film is not to the same scale, it’s low-level, motivated at first by love rather than gain or personal power, but it lets us into the process of how the smallest, almost innocent beginnings can escalate out of control, and how no-one is immune.

Romeo (Adrian Titieni) and his wife Magda are of the generation who were young towards the end of Ceaşcescu’s rule. They escaped, but returned after his overthrow, full of ideals that they could make a brave new world in their country. Instead, though he is a well-respected surgeon, they find themselves in a run-down block of flats in a scrubby vandal-plagued suburb, the depressed Magda has a dead end job in a school library where half the books are stuck up with sellotape, and their marriage is shaky. The tone of their surroundings is set by the opening shot, a man digging a hole on the corner, hurling gritty dirt almost into our faces, reminiscent of the splosh of mucky pot-hole water dashed across the screen at the end of Mungiu’s last film, Beyond the Hills. This director has a way of making us feel personally grubby and threatened, with the distant, half-melancholy half-menacing sound of barking dogs often present.

Romeo and Magda’s hopes for the future now lie with their daughter Eliza (Maria Dragus), a bright girl who is in line for a scholarship to Cambridge if she does well in her exams – this they see as her chance to escape the dreary and constricting life they find themselves in. That she’s not so sure she wants to leave is another matter. How far Romeo is trying to correct his own damaged life through her is one of many complex aspects that make this film so absorbing. But on the day before she is to take the most important of her exams she is sexually assaulted on her way to school. The trauma and the fact that her writing arm is encased in plaster doesn’t, amazingly, seem to get her any special consideration from the school, so Dad does what he can to make sure her grades aren’t damaged, by other means, beginning with a little persuasion and leading to an attempt to actually pervert the law. Or maybe that’s the only way to get justice in that corrupt world, that’s the sad thing.

That Romeo’s a decent, well intentioned man with whom we feel much sympathy makes the process painful for us as well as for him – there’s never any standing back to judge with Mungiu, we’re in there with Romeo all the grubby way, even as his character degrades in sweaty closeup as he gradually loses his self-respect as well as that of his daughter. There’s a painful scene where he scrambles around the dark hinterland of the suburban streets that’s always waiting there – still the barking dogs – spooked by an unformulated threat. By the end he’s a broken man, looking after his mistress’s little boy as he visits the school where his daughter’s class is holding their leaving day, in a personal hell as he looks on the innocent classrooms and old murals of sunny students eager for learning – all those dead dreams. There’s the sound from outside of ‘Gaudeamus igitur’ as speeches are made and class photos are taken.

In the end it’s all been for nothing. Eliza has ‘fixed it’ for herself. The graduation that she has achieved is into the shady, knowing world of adulthood. And for Romeo it’s a second graduation, the first, years ago, his disillusionment with his country, the second with himself.

 

Seen at Tyneside Cinema 3 April 2017

Doc of the week: Grizzly Man

Directed by Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog has made his career out of films about obsessed eccentrics who can scarcely be accommodated within society, from the holy innocent ‘enfant sauvage’ Kaspar Hauser to the megalomaniac Aguirre Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo who pursue their obsessions beyond human limits. Timothy Treadwell, subject of this film, is somewhere between the two – an apparently gentle, almost simple-minded soul who takes his teddybear along when he camps in the highly dangerous grizzly reserve, and a man capable of intense rage and irrationality in pursuit of his quest.

Much of the film is made up of footage shot by Treadwell himself, of himself, in Alaskan bear country. In the States he was famous as an unconventional conservationist with an obsession with bears, making films of them in the wild with which to publicise his cause. With his ‘Prince Valiant’ hairdo and camp ways, he cuts a strange but sincere figure. But the salient fact about Treadwell now is that in 2003 he was killed, and eaten (mostly), by a bear, along with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard.

Herzog’s own contributions are increasingly bizarre – his steady Germanic tones providing an unsettling commentary, and his interviewing and filming of Treadwell’s friends and the professionals involved in the aftermath of his death has a surreal edge. (The chap who did the autopsy is especially spooky, giving grisly details of the three garbage-bags-ful of human remains recovered from the bear’s gut.) At first you’re rather ashamed to laugh – it seems awful to laugh at the dead, but soon the nervous titters at the show I attended turned more full-blooded. You just can’t help it. ‘I didn’t expect to find it so funny,’ confessed the girl next to me, half apologetically.

There are very unsettling moments, like the one where Herzog, watched in silence by Treadwell’s former girlfriend, grimly listens to the sound recording of the fatal attack (the camera was running but lens cap in place). Shocked, he removes the headphones. ‘You must never listen to this, Marnie, you must destroy it,’ he tells her. She solemnly nods. What a strange theatrical scene. In a way seeing him listening is more chilling than listening ourselves. And how very clever of Herzog to stage this – we are already feeling guilty at finding Treadwell rather comic, and now we feel bad about really wanting deep down to listen to the horror too. It’s a fine game he’s playing with us. Later he tries to analyse Treadwell’s simplistic view of an innocent, well-intentioned nature, and in doomful tones gives his alternate vision of a nature red in tooth and claw, a nihilistic world of ‘hostility, chaos and murder’. We feel suitably chastened.

So, Treadwell is a tragic figure because he gave everything for his cause… But what was ‘his cause’? Apart from interesting people, especially young people, in bears with the films, which weren’t after all so amazing, the money given to him seems to have all gone to provide him with the means to spend several months a year living close by them in a way which validated his strange take on life, regarding himself as almost a member of their tribe. And also allowing him to feel special. His attitude to the bears is unsettlingly anthropomorphic – he has names for them and talks to and about them like naughty children or best mates. Similarly there is a particularly sentimental passage where he talks man to man with a fox who lurks around the camp, and races with him through the grass. For the most part the animals act as if he isn’t there – but Treadwell’s aim, the ideal of human and bear living side by side, is frowned upon by most conservationists as not in the best interests of the bears, for whom a healthy fear of humans is protective.

As one learns more about Treadwell’s chequered past and sees him in his primpings (‘now which bandana shall I wear today?’) and rages, both against poachers (whose work he may well be aiding by accustoming the bears to human presence) and the conservationists of the reserve, the complexity of the man makes him more of an Aguirre than a Kaspar Hauser, and in one telling scene shot inside the greenish light of the tent he almost comes to resemble Klaus Kinski, star of Aguirre. He even rails against the gods of the world religions (including the ‘Hindu floaty thing’) when it rains for too long and his tent starts to collapse. In the most queasy scene of all he films himself almost orgasmically fondling some bear ‘poop’ (It’s still warm! It’s just come out of her!!’)

Similarly one’s disquiet rises as one realises that the faithful girlfriend who accompanied him on many trips and died apparently trying to save him is scarcely included in any of his shots. Treadwell never mentions her presence in the self-centred monologues to camera, and no-one seems around to mourn for her, in contrast to the reverential eulogies by friends and professionals alike on Treadwell. After getting quite fond of him as a daffy eccentric, the feeling certainly grew on me that his egotism was less than attractive and his behaviour more calculating than at first sight. The footage he shot was all me me me, the animals all viewed via his mawkish distorting vision. Whether Herzog means us to see it this way, or whether his apparent admiration for Treadwell is genuine, is dubious – you are certainly aware that you are in the hands of a very clever film maker, selection and editing of the original material and interviews all meshing together to produce a film that might seem simple but is actually very complex and may say as much about its maker as about the man who shot the original footage.

Seen at Odeon Panton St, London, February 2006

Now released on BFIplayer, March 2017

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