Beyond The Hills, partly set in a convent, offers lots to chew on.
BEYOND THE HILLS written and directed by Cristian Mungiu, from the books by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, with Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Veleriu Andriuta and Dana Tapalaga. A Mongrel Media release. 150 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (March 29). For venues and times, see Movies. Rating: NNNN
Beyond The Hills isn't going to change the way anyone feels about Romanian cinema. It's grim, spare, long and kind of a downer. Of course, anyone expecting Caddyshack from the director of the devastating 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days is bound to be disappointed.
Cristian Mungiu moves beyond the horrors of the Ceausescu era into the present, though his central theme is the same. Beyond The Hills is also a tale of young women navigating a system designed to destroy them through indifference.
Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) were raised together in an orphanage, then separated as young women when Alina went to Germany to work. Voichita stayed behind in Moldavia and eventually joined a convent. But now Alina has returned to bring Voichita to Germany - except that she doesn't want to go.
There's more to it, of course. Voichita and Alina were lovers at some point in their youth, and it's implied that Voichita's commitment to the convent, symbolized by her impending vows, is a way of sublimating her sexuality or renouncing it outright. Alina, quite understandably, is horrified that her beloved would reject her in this way, and turns to increasingly extreme measures to snap Voichita out of what she believes is a delusional state - which leads the priest (Veleriu Andriuta) to conclude that Alina must be some sort of malevolent presence. Things do not go well after that.
As he did in 4 Weeks, 3 Months And 2 Days, Mungiu uses long, static takes to fill ostensibly calm situations with unspoken tension. He also makes the spare mise-en-scène an essential element of the drama. Look for the lovely, understated metaphor about a stove the nuns are constantly fixing, trying to keep the smoke from leaking out.
The middle section is a bit on the nose, metaphorically speaking, but it's a necessary evil; we need to see how badly people want things to work out for the best in order to see how they go so dreadfully wrong.