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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