BEYOND THE HILLS is a must-see. GRADUATION is for completists.
The Criterion Collection works its way through both a long list of canon classics from the history of film, and a parallel track of what it considers to be the most important voices in world cinema today. This gives us the opportunity to play catchup with significant work we may have missed at film festivals or which never found a home on Netflix (because why would it?).
To wit, I'd never seen one of Cristian Mungiu's films before (not his best-known work, Four Months, Three Weeks and Two Days, nor its successors) so the opportunity to look at not one, but two back-to-back releases from the filmmaker -- which joined the collection in June as spine numbers 923 and 924 -- was inspiring. Beyond the Hills is the filmmaker's 2012 retelling of a true story from Romania about a convent of nuns who participated in an extremely sketchy "exorcism," resulting in a woman's death; and Graduation is a 2016 drama about a father trying to secure top marks for his daughter so that she can leave Romania.
Beautifully photographed in austere but nimble long takes that pierce the daily goings-on of the monastery, Beyond the Hills is something of a revelation to me. It locates its story in a community of women by focusing on the fraught relationship between its lead pair: Voichita, who has fled the implied sexual exploitation and abuse of her orphan upbringing by devoting herself entirely to god; and Alina, who is desperately in love with Voichita after their shared childhoods as part sisters, part support systems, part (again, implied) lovers.
Voichita and Alina's relationship is the complex, ever-unravelling heart of the film, but they are bolstered by both the community of nuns around them (particularly, "Mama," the group's empathetic but unimaginative Mother Superior), and "Papa," the kind-of-creepy, kind-of-genuine priest of the monastery. All four lead performances -- Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur as Voichita and Alina, and Valerie Andriuta and Dana Tapalaga as Papa and Mama -- are rich, with a lived-in neorealism that neither betrays the drama through oversimplification, nor fails to deliver on some extraordinary and disturbing sequences throughout.
When the convent group begins the process of trying to "exorcise" Alina in the final act, the lenses through which we've been watching the film seem to shatter and fall away. Alina has been both a desperate, abused woman seeking the comfort of the only person she has ever been able to trust, and a self-destructive disruptor thrown into the heart of the placid religious community. The monastery's inhabitants have been quiet, faithful servants of their god and unsettling, almost cult-like zealots who see no further than the boundaries of their faith. When Mungiu pulls back from these views even momentarily -- by focusing for a scene on an emergency room doctor who sees the charade for what it is; or spending five or ten minutes with local police interrogating the participants -- the effect is striking. The system of rules and habits by which we all interpret outliers like persons with mental health issues, or devoutly religious people, suddenly seem like funhouse mirrors.
Mungiu's 2016 film, Graduation, didn't offer me as much. It concerns a middle-aged Romanian father who is eager -- nay, desperate -- to secure his daughter's scholarship at a school in England. When she is raped on her way to one of her final exams and her results suffer, he focuses less on helping his child work through the trauma, and more on ensuring that her straight As remain straight, by cutting various back-room deals and peddling his influence as a local surgeon to secure the favours.
Graduation is a thinner, meaner work than its predecessor. It would inevitably draw Michael Haneke comparisons with its devil-on-the-shoulder framing, and in Romeo's white bourgeois distrust of everyone and everything who is not that, which manifests in paranoia of losing all of that which he subconsciously thinks he has not earned. In one sequence, Romeo and an educator who can help with the daughter's case, which means essentially accepting a bribe, speak roughly of the "criminals" who run rampant and who shouldn't be allowed to affect Romeo's daughter's life, while assuring one another that they, themselves, don't "do this sort of thing." One class of criminals, discussing another.
It's difficult to empathize with Romeo as he begins his decline into moral compromise. He is a father trying to help his daughter, but he is doing so for what seem to be entirely self-absorbed reasons; he is also somewhat of a colossal prick at the best of times, so your mileage may vary. He is cheating openly on his wife but takes a resoundingly hands-off approach to both his mistress' young son and the unborn child he has recently gifted her with. He refuses to classify his daughter's assault as rape because the perpetrator allegedly didn't get an erection, which somehow (to him) puts it lower on the spectrum of malevolence and does not violate his seeming pride/interest in his daughter's virginity.
A recurring thread in the film involves someone or something smashing Romeo's windows, and with them Romeo's fragile placidity; "All that counts is getting back to a normal world," he tells his daughter, as though he and his family are living in some alternate-reality purgatory and not a comfortable, middle-class urban life. Graduation is relentless in demonstrating that that world is, indeed, corrupt; that bureaucracy fails frequently but extra-legal favour exchanges have created a secondary system. But Romeo seems to be part of the problem, lost in his own entitlement and privilege, long before he begins actively participating in that system.
Extras across both discs are light. Both films feature newly recorded interviews with Cristian Mungiu that run about half an hour long and get at some of the social and philosophical motivations for their respective stories; the two discs also enshrine the Cannes press conferences, from 2012 and 2016 respectively, for Beyond the Hills and Graduation, which included key members of the cast as well. If you, like me, find watching press conferences the pinnacle of boredom, you'll probably skip these.
The most interesting extra is on Beyond the Hills, which is a half-hour documentary on the making of the film from 2013, produced by Mungiu himself. This is a more detailed look at the production process, something of a rarity in an age where we usually tend to see this kind of journal for Cinematic Universe movies only. (But hey: New Romanian cinematic universe? Go for it. These would be some fine, miserable Avengers.)