It's almost ten years since Cristi Puiu's harrowing The Death of Mr. Lazarescu revealed to the film world a remarkable generation of Romanian filmmakers that became known as the "Romanian New Wave". And while that film served as a formal and thematic blueprint for a lot of what came afterwards, most (but not all) of which was really very good, only a handful rose to the level of that masterpiece. To that rarefied handful should now be added Beyond the Hills, Cristian Mungiu's follow-up to his Cannes Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. The new film can be seen as a companion piece to The Death of Mr. Lazarescu in its inexorable, implacable progression towards an avoidable tragedy that seems to become ever more unavoidable despite all the off-ramps present at any moment.

     Formally, Beyond the Hills isn't as rigid as most of what we have identified with Romanian cinema, but its commitment to the emotional truth of the characters, its focus on the naturalistic performances and its refusal to look away are all hallmarks of the style put to excellent use in this dramatization of a real-life case that happened a few years ago, where a young woman died after an attempted exorcism goes wrong. Mr. Mungiu rewinds the tale in chronological order and sets out, dispassionately and with an extraordinary sense of detail, the events that lead to it; at heart, Beyond the Hills is a game of power between love, religion and pragmatism, set in a broken-down society where the true feelings and needs of two young orphan girls are subject to what the world expects of them.

     Best friends in the orphanage they grew up in, Voichița (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) took different paths in life. Taken in by a foster family, Alina eventually moved to Germany to look for work; Voichița joined the local orthodox monastery and finds comfort in her work as a nun. Alina comes to visit Voichița, wanting to convince her to come to Germany, wanting to recapture what the girls had together in the orphanage (which may not have been strictly platonic, though the film never delves into it), but Voichița is unwilling to leave, and her friend's rebellious spirit creates serious discomfort among the monastery's strict framework, rigidly enforced by the well-meaning but fundamentalist priest (Valeriu Andriuță) who runs it with almost no money and a lot of faith. An epileptic fit that sends Alina to the hospital becomes the trigger of the tragedy, with everybody around her looking for the well-being of the girls but being unable to look at it outside their own worldview; hence Alina's psychological problems are seen as the devil's work, and the nuns' well-meaning attempts at healing her are seen as religious conditioning.

     That Mr. Mungiu hardly ever frames his actresses in extreme close-ups, preferring to place them always in relation to what surrounds them, merely underlines the claustrophobia they are condemned to by the strictures of a rural society still finding its way in the modern world. The apparent throwaway details only underline how hopeless both Alina and Voichița's attempt to find their own path is. Yet, as bleak as all this may seem, Mr. Mungiu's astounding formal and precise narrative control save it from miserabilism and turn it into a stunning work that refuses to pass judgment and looks dispassionately at the struggle to make sense of your life in the modern world.

Cast: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuță, Dana Tapalagă
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Screenplay: Mr. Mungiu, based on the books by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, Spovedanie Ia Tanacu and Cartea Judecătorilor
Cinematography: Oleg Mutu (colour, widescreen)
Designers: Călin Papură, Mihaela Poenaru
Costumes: Dana Paparuz
Editor: Mircea Olteanu
Producer: Mr. Mungiu (Mobra Films in co-production with Why Not Productions, Les Films du Fleuve, France 3 Cinéma and Mandragora Movies)
Romania/France/Belgium, 2012, 152 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, Zon Lusomundo Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon, May 20th 2013, and DVD screener, Lisbon, May 21st 2013


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