The Romanian film “Beyond the Hills” unfurls at a glacial pace and I have to confess to a lot of watch-checking during the first half of this movie.
But as it builds to a gripping climax, it reveals itself as a morality tale the likes of which I’ve never seen.
The story is relatively straightforward and focuses on two friends who grew up in an orphanage together.
Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) has chosen the life of a nun in an Orthodox parish in rural Romania. She lives a simple life surrounded by fellow sisters, a kindhearted mother superior (Dana Tapalaga), and a sternly devout priest (Valeriu Andriuta).
Everything is thrown into upheaval with the arrival of Voichita’s childhood friend, Alina (Cristina Flutur), an emotionally and mentally unbalanced woman.
Alina is all alone and wants Voichita to leave the parish and live with her. When Voichita refuses, Alina has a violent breakdown and is taken to the local hospital.
The officials at the hospital don’t have the means or the desire to care for Alina so they dump her back in the care of the reluctant priest.
The priest tries everything he can to get Alina to leave, including finding her a home with her former foster parents. But Alina will not be parted from her friend, and while Voichita wants to continue to live at the parish, she hates the idea of simply casting Alina out onto the streets.
The priest hesitantly agrees to let Alina stay and become a nun, but that turns out to work as well as would be expected and in no time she is lashing out violently and erratically.
Left with no other options and with Voichita pleading for help for her friend, the priest does the only thing he can think to do and performs an exorcism. Things end badly.
On the surface, “Beyond the Hills” seems to be nothing more than a big, fat downer that flings indictments at the backward ways of organized religion.
What makes this movie unique is that it holds literally everyone in the film accountable for the unfortunate goings-on.
A lesser movie would have simply cast the priest as the patriarchal villain, but while it certainly holds him accountable, you can see that his heart was in the right place and there is plenty of blame to go around.
You can fault the other nuns for following so blindly or Alina’s foster family for turning their backs or the doctors for trying to avoid a bureaucratic hassle or the entire system that creates and discards women like Alina.
Not even our heroes escape judgment. Voichita’s indecisiveness as to stay or leave only further encourages Alina, and Alina’s unhealthy fixation on her friend and her refusal to leave what is clearly a bad situation puts her on the hook as well.
If only one of the players in this sad morality play had acted differently, the results would have been decidedly altered, but alas, no one recognizes or acknowledges the dark inevitability until it is too late to get out of its way.
“Beyond the Hills” received a great deal of recognition at the Cannes Film Festival where Flutur and Stratan both won the award for best actress, and writer/director Cristian Mungiu won the award for best screenplay, loosely basing the movie on a non-fiction book, which makes this a somewhat true story.
This is a movie only for the most patient filmgoers. Not only are there subtitles to contend with, but it is also a film that could stand to lose a good 45 minutes. But for those willing to stick it out, it is a haunting and rewarding movie that offers a lot to think about.
It is a powerful reminder of how easily events can spiral out of control, how the bold action of an individual can set things right again, and, sadly, how few individuals are willing to take any action at all.
“Beyond the Hills” is not rated but features nudity, language, and some violent, disturbing images.