Long takes, short life
Mungiu’s griping, if one-note, new film comes from a 2005 news story that caused a big stir in Romania: a girl went to visit a friend at a remote nunnery and died while its members, led by the priest in charge, were performing an exorcism on her. But the director revised the story into his own style, taking the non-fiction novels of atiana Niculescu Bran as a starting point. Elaborate action sequences are shot in long widescreen takes, like Naranjo’s Miss Bala; only this is nothing like Miss Bala: these are two girls and a group of nuns scurrying around up on a hill. What Mungiu also added was the history of a relationship, studiously not (quite) lesbian but certainly intimate and deeply loving, between the two girls when they were growing up in an orphanage. So the unfortunate visitor, Alina (Cristina Flutur), a somewhat mannish young woman who has been lonely in Germany without her friend and has lost touch with her foster parents, arrives at the nunnery with no one, hoping her beloved Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) will come away with her. But Voichita, who originally only came for a visit herself, has by now taken Jesus and the local priest’s very austere, judgmental form of Eastern Orthodox Christianity as her new world and comfort, and she refuses to go away. This and the repressive environment, which she wants to adjust to but can’t, cause Alina to freak out and she begins having fits of violence and anger. A trip to the hospital under restraints helps temporarily, but back with the nuns she soon has a fit again. Perhaps she is insane; but fundamentalist Christianity seems unable, officially anyway, to adjust to the idea of mental problems, and the priest, followed by his obedient flock of nuns, chooses to start saying the girl is possessed by Satan.
Mungiu himself is saying two things here, interpreting the actual events. First, contemporary Christianity in this strict Orthodox form provides ritual and belief and a long list of potential sins, but doesn’t lead people to be kind to one another. Second, in a lastingly traumatized post-Soviet Eastern Europe too society is numbed and people are poor responders to personal human emergencies.
In describing its events the film seems to me much too drawn out and repetitious. The long handheld takes shot by Oleg Mutu are fine, their muted colors and dark shadows dramatized by the snowy exteriors of a severe winter, but there needs to be fewer of these takes. (Mungiu says that there was another half hour that he cut out with difficulty.) On the other hand, the acting and staging and writing are certainly good. One could just say this is Bressonian and leave it at that. A Man Escaped and Diary of a Country Priest are repetitious too. But they are Bresson, which Mungiu isn’t. There is a drab ordinariness that gets in the way of the spiritual in a Romanian film. Mungius lacks a sense of the spiritual. Despite an effort at evenhandedness and avoidance of pointing blame, it is hard to appreciate that these nuns and their priest have any kind of spiritual life. We don’t get any sense of the place’s rituals or of the symmetry and peace they might bring. There aren’t even scenes of group prayer or music. And though he may not be demonized, neither is the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) ever given a charismatic moment. Nor are the nuns indiidualized as the monks obviously were in Xavier Beauvois’ 2010 Cannes Grand Prize winner, Of God and Men. So for all the 150 minutes and the self-consciously neutral, realistic approach, there’s a lot left out of the picture.
I can’t deny that Beyond the Hills is compulsively watchable. But despite showing the distressing downward spiral of a young woman who winds up literally chained to a wooden cross, it’s more predictable than and not as emotionally disturbing and intense as Mungiu’s previous 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007), which won the Golden Palm at Cannes, putting him and Romanian cinema in general decisively on the international map.
Dupa dealuri (the original title) debuted at Cannes, where it won Best Actress (jointly for Stratan and Flutur) and Best Screenplay awards. Also shown at Toronto and Humburg. French release secheduled for November 21, 2012. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center.
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Stars: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta
Runtime: 150 min
Country: Romania, France, Belgium