Christian Mungiu, the leading figure of Romanian New Wave, strikes again with Beyond the Hills
. Just like his Palme d'Or winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
, which elevated a rather unpleasant subject matter (illegal abortion) into a dizzying, tension-filled masterpiece, here he manages to make something greater out of an exorcism-gone-horribly-wrong story based on a true event. Mungiu again proves to be a gifted
storyteller and a great tension builder. He is also masterful at presenting nuanced human interactions.
The film takes place in a small remote Romanian
monastery in the hills. A young nun named Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) reunites with her
childhood friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) from their orphanage days after a long
separation. Alina, emotionally stunted of the two, having been living in
Germany alone for a long time, is determined to reclaim her long time
love. But Voichita's world is now all about God and prayers, living
without worldly attachment. Indeed, affectionately calling the head priest
and Mother Superior papa and mama, she calls the electricity-less orthodox
monastery her true home now.
After throwing an emotional tantrum and trying to
throw herself into a well, Alina spends a night at a crowded local hospital. If she can't run away with Voichita, then she will join in. The
priest insists on telling her that the monastic life is not fit for a person
with human desires and monetary attachment, not noticing the seriousness
of the girl's obsessive love for her best friend. Things escalate to a
point where the esteemed priest is pressured to perform a sort of exorcism
to rid the evil spirit from hysterical Alina, followed by the grisly aftermath. These nuns and the priest are not bad
people and have the best of intentions in their hearts. But with the old rules they follow
and their conduct for 'curing' the emotionally disturbed, they are still stuck in
the Middle Ages.
In Mungiu's films, Romania is a country full of contradictions where the past and the present precariously co-exist side by side. None are more pronounceable than one scene at
the hospital where unsympathetic, overworked staff collide with the priest and nuns. In another scene, two arresting officers make small talk about a boy stabbing his mother to death in the presence of
hushed nuns in a paddy wagon on the way to the police station.
With great performances all around, Beyond the Hills
is an emotionally exhausting experience. Even with a running time of
2 1/2 hours, the film succeeds in holding your attention from beginning to end with unrelenting tension. Stratan and Flutur deservedly shared the Best Actress honors for their portrayals, and Mungiu took home Best Screenplay award at last year's Cannes film festival.
Beyond the Hills has a limited release in theaters on March 8 and VOD on March 14. Please visit Sundance Selects website for more info
.Dustin Chang is a freelance writer. His musing and opinions on the world can be found at www.dustinchang.com.
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