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Sep 13, 2014

Review: BEYOND THE HILLS (2013)

            Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga, Catalina Harabagiu, Gina Tandura, Vica Agache, Nora Covali and Dionisie Vitcu

                    Cristian Mungiu

                  Prior to watching this Romanian film by director Cristian Mungiu, the only two things I knew were that it was Mungiu's (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) latest film and that it won screenplay and actress prizes at the Cannes Film Festival. I wasn't aware of the dramatic turn that this film takes. "Beyond the Hills" isn't a horror film featuring exorcism. Expecting it to be as such prior to watching this film or having known about its real-life account would infuriate many viewers. Those who have seen Mungiu's Palme d'Or winner knows about his style and moreover, his narrative texture. A sociological odyssey, slow and long takes, simple but resonating dialogues, good photography and even better performances. While Beyond the Hills isn't nearly as great as the aforementioned film, despite the slight issues one can have with it, it still leaves you thinking and reeling from the experience. Where this film succeeds is in raising the questions or rather making us familiar to those questions while not truly having any straightforward answers for them. The most disturbing element of this element isn't the exorcism or that it happened in reality but that there wasn't any demon to begin with or that the demon was the society that failed these girls. I think it was a good decision to award this film in the two categories at Cannes considering the lineup they had in 2012 but I was rather surprised after watching this film. Anyways, lets not get into the Cannes discussion. Beyond the Hills was also submitted by Romania for Best Foreign Language Oscar consideration but it only made the January shortlist and wasn't nominated.

                  This film is only 'inspired' by the two books written by Tatiana Niculescu Bran about an exorcism gone wrong. That should be your second indication. The case she wrote about had a young member of some monastery in Moldavia who died after an exorcism ritual in 2005. Beyond the Hills itself is more focused on the relationship between two girls, just like Mungiu's previous film. Alina (Flutur) and Voichita (Stratan) were raised in an orphanage together and one can assume that they were quite close to each other. Maybe Alina was too close, she needed her friend more than Voichita did? Anyways, we see Alina returning to her town to meet Voichita. She has worked in Germany and wants to take her dearest friend back with her where they could live and work together, find comfort in the company of each other just like she used to back in the orphanage. But there is a problem, Voichita has chosen a different path in her life. She now finds comfort in the presence of her little Church family, her 'daddy' the priest and her God. Voichita doesn't need Alina anymore. The presence of Alina in the church is alarming for the pious family who sees her as just another Western influenced, Satan devotee whose entire life and principles are based on the very wrongful things they condemn. Voichita's faith as I observed wasn't the most strongest one either but I guess she needed this family. These orphaned girls grew up in such institutionalized environment. Abandoned by their parents and left to the facilities and care of others. Mungiu never provides any prominent clues about the two, their conversations aren't the most revealing either but you get a sense. They loved each other but what changed? If Alina had demons, who brought them in her? Voichita? Herself? Her repressed desires? Her past and her fate? Society? Institutions? Church? Was she mentally ill? The answer may be any of these or none. Maybe all!

                  As the film proceeds, which does in a sometimes harshly slow pace, Alina's condition begins to get worse. She seems hostile towards the new family her friend has found. Very possessive of Voichita, believing those people to be a threat. By the time the whole exorcism element came into play, I couldn't be more shocked and taken by surprise. Just like the filmmaker himself, I am not taking sides here. That has nothing to do with any moral inclination but life as they say is complicated, this world isn't the most easiest place to live in. There are many questions in life which has no answer. The very basic one is questioning our very own existence and the true purpose behind it. We all have our own version of it. We have our own version for everything, from life and its purpose to love and God. People of the church in this film acted irrationally and caused a life. They took matters in their own hands, sticking to what they believed in, no room for any doubt or a second opinion. Does that make it right? No! Alina herself acted in a selfish way. She made it the purpose of her life to be with that one girl and one girl only without listening or understanding what Voichita herself wanted. Alina didn't care, to her this backward path in life her friend chose for herself was wrong. She decided for herself. These very things became her own undoing. Did she deserved her fate? No!

                  The priest controls church and everything and everybody in it. Alina wants to control Voichita hence she is the danger his family faces and vice versa. Between all this, Voichita is left thrown off by this. Just like her friend who has no home, she doesn't want to take a risk leaving her current and yet can't see her friend in such turmoil. But Voichita can't do anything about it. It is very likely that such harsh realities in life can drive a person crazy, literally or metaphorically. These two girls have been separated for a while and life threw them in different directions. The breakdown in communication resulted in their falling apart, in the sense that what they may have imagined for themselves was no more a possibility. One of them felt far more betrayed by this. Betrayed, feared, heartbroken. Then tragedy struck. Mungiu paints a beautiful picture, a fully realized canvas where the blank spaces speaks more than the filled ones. Talking about the film itself, it isn't the most perfectly imagined, structured or conveyed. It sure could have used some trimming. The film does feel slightly overlong. Many of the 'spaces' are not very necessary as the filmmaker provides ample time to make us think despite them. Spare but striking, it is however very beautifully shot film. The peaceful and serene shots of the countryside, the long takes here recalls the work of Bela Tarr. While the subjects it touches may remind one of Ingmar Bergman, it is not as immersive and densely philosophical, ethical or spiritual creation. The usual handheld camerawork that Romanian New Wave is known for is good. Most of the times it increases the impact along with the decision to not use any background music. It heightens the intensity as well as the dread. The more disturbing portion of this film is the one that hits us right into the guts because Mungiu reaches that point having established so much with so little. He utilizes minimalistic filmmaking tropes rather than exploiting our senses by turning on the volume to the fullest.

                  For some, the characters or the space they occupy in this film wont appeal as much as their implication or real-life standing. Mungiu sheds brief light on his own society to make general albeit not very straightforward statements. Bleak world this is where many of the questions don't have definite answers. Society fails to understand that and so there are consequences. We don't live in a black and white world. We need to understand that even as the superior beings we think of ourselves, humans are far from the most powerful creatures. There are things that are beyond our power or control even though they are pretty much a part of our life. Mungiu realizes that and  hence, he makes such films. On the surface this film deals with superstitions then love and freedom. The hypocrisies, selfishness and the lack of humility. The overpowering and oppressive nature of us. This film isn't against or for anything yet it stands on its two feet firmly enough to make us think about its societal, political and human implications. Written and shot well enough, directed with urgency and beautiful performances by the two actresses. Beyond the Hills is haunting rather than exploiting, it feels like a melodrama of the mind, a philosophical exercise of the most intimate kind. It's a good film and despite the most obvious issues a viewer of any cinematic taste may have, I say give it a shot. Personally, films that gives me much to think, so much to realize and questions to haunt are the ones that stays with me the most.

Grade: B+