is either tragically codependent or possessed by the Devil. Radically different measures would be
required depending on the diagnosis, but either way, she will visit a host of
trials upon her girlfriend Voichita and her fellow Orthodox convent residents
in Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (trailer here), Romania’s latest
official best foreign language Oscar submission, which screens as part of the
main slate of the 50th New York Film Festival.
and pious, Voichita appears perfectly suited to a cloistered life. Alina is a different story. However, since her former friend has no real
family, Voichita arranges for her to stay temporarily in her quarters. Yet, as soon as she arrives, Alina starts
badgering her former friend to leave with her.
Gently rebuffing her, Voichita watches in alarm as her visitor’s
behavior becomes increasingly erratic and disruptive, evetually manifesting in
several public meltdowns. The priest and
the nuns do not want to abandon a soul in need, but after the medical
establishment washes their hands of Aline, there seems to be only one remaining
course of action: exorcism.
implies a great deal in Hills, very
definitely including the nature of Aline and Voichita’s relationship, while
leaving just as much open to interpretation.
It would also have been very easy to portray the priest and good sisters
as stereotypical zealots dangerously convinced of their own infallibility. However, Hills
constantly reasserts the messy humanity of each character. In fact, the ambiguity of the “possession”
gives the film quite a distinctive flavor.
Frankly, after about two hours of Aline acting out, most viewers will be
ready to throw their lot in with the nuns, holding down the devil-woman as the
priest reads the purification scriptures over her.
a running time of 150 minutes, Hills often
feels like what it is, a product of the Romanian New Wave of independent
filmmaking. It probably would not have killed
anyone had Mungiu shaved off twenty minutes or so. Nonetheless, he elicits several riveting
performances, the most notable being Cosmina Stratan as Voichita, the confused
innocent. As Alina, Cristina Flutur is also
scarily convincing engaging in all manner of aggressive, self-destructive
behavior. Yet, it is Valeriu Andriută’s work
as the priest, simultaneously severe and sympathetic, that really forestalls
snap audience judgments.
Based on a novelized account of a real life
incident in Moldova, Hills is not a
kneejerk attack on Eastern Orthodoxy.
Nonetheless, as the Russian Orthodox Church hemorrhages international
credibility due to its perceived alliance with the Putin regime, it is hard not
to invest Hills with an additional
layer of meaning, whether or not Mungiu intended it. Given its ambiguous but evocative treatment
monastic life and supernatural possession, Beyond
the Hills would be a fascinating film to see in conjunction with Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s
Mother Joan of the Angels. Challenging in multiple ways, Beyond the Hills is recommended for
hardy cineastes with at least a couple of Romanian New Wave films already under
their belts when it screens tomorrow (10/1), next Sunday (10/7), and the
following Thursday 10/11), as part of the 2012 NYFF.
Labels: 85th Academy Awards Foreign Language Submissions, Cristian Mungiu, NYFF '12, Religion in film, Romanian Cinema