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Beyond The Hills
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by Jay Seaver

"A quite unorthodox love story."
5 stars

"Beyond the Hills" is a slow builder, with writer/director Christian Mungiu's point almost never in doubt. He knows, though, that you don't change someone's beliefs with one bold demonstration, especially if it's built on a premise that the audience doesn't necessarily believe, so he spends his time nudging, not seeming to do anything big, until finally stepping back, having attacked points that are often far from subtle obliquely but still creating something engrossing.

Things start quietly, with Alina (Christina Flutur) returning to her home village in Romania after having lived in Germany after aging out of an orphanage. She's met by her best friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who stayed behind to enter a convent. Though Alina protected Voichita when they were children, she is the one who seems fragile now, begging her friend to return abroad with her. Voichita would like to help Alina, but she has found a home in the monastery, and the priest in charge (Valeriu Andriuta) demands her commitment to God be total.

There's a wonderful shot early on in this movie where Alina and Voichita walk away from the town toward the convent which, despite taking them up a mountain, feels like sailing away from a shoreline - the clumped-together buildings a land mass with a very definitive border. The landscape becomes important again toward the end, as mounting snow makes the environment more perilous, despite there not being talk of a storm. I wonder if this is fortuitous or deliberate - the film was shot in sequence, so the filmmakers may have just taken the weather they got and made it work - but it's impressive how Mungiu works these perhaps less-obvious characteristics of the setting more than well-worn ones. He could have had the nuns using horses or donkeys to travel to and from the town to mark their home as a place stuck in the past, for instance.

In fact, much of the movie is built around things not said. It's quite clear to the audience that Alina is in love with Voichita, and that Voichita certainly feels a strong attachment toward her, but sexuality is never addressed directly - in fact, as the movie goes on, that these two might be attracted to girls in general seems to become less and less relevant. Noting that a conservative church condemns them is easy and baldly presenting it as cruel doesn't convince anyone; showing characters hamstrung by not being able to even consider the option and address it head-on, though, makes the last act interesting; a sort of mental paralysis keeps the action moving forward. Similarly, he avoids having the doctors give a specific diagnosis on-screen when Alina is treated for violent outbursts - it would be much easier to mock the nuns' later actions if the word "schizophrenia" has been mentioned. The actions they do take would often be scored with dramatic music in other films, but here it's a sort of chaos that keeps the worst excesses out of sight but leaves no doubt of the wrongness involved.

That's how Mungiu (working from "non-fiction novels" by Tatiana Niculescu Bran) goes about making a quiet but insistent criticism of the church (Romanian Orthodox here, although in many ways the specific organization isn't important): A comment that seems perhaps more exclusionary than need be here, some pointing to elements that are more about procedure than spirituality there, and eventually a scene where the nuns stand in their all-black outfits with odd headgear and talk about how young people can fall into cults seems like the driest satire. Not subtle, but also not cruel - many secular institutions are also questioned, while the nuns' intentions seem generally good, with their faith and belief much less targets than the rules which channel them.

Cosima Stratan seems to exemplify that as Voichita - there's a sense throughout that she has found a form of peace in this place, and that sort of apparent serenity might make her seem bland at first. Stratan never lets that be where she ends up, though - the calm she finds in ritual and a greater purpose bumps up against an equally insistent need to help Alina individually, and that quiet battle is well-presented. Cristina Flutur is just as good as Alina; there's something physically robust yet mentally strained about her, and the way she lets Alina's neediness or fury overcome her is impressive indeed. Valeriu Andriuta never fails to find the line between devotion and frightening certainty and walk it so that even those predisposed to finding him a villain can see more. Dana Tapalaga has a wonderful, low-key goodness as the convent's Mother Superior; she's often the film's moral anchor.

Of course, that's an analysis coming from a person who is quite firmly not religious, and I can certainly see my own biases and tendencies there. I'd be curious to see how it plays for believers in general and Ortohodox Christians in particular. It seems like it would at least raise worthwhile questions without being pushy, while presenting two worthy protagonists regardless of one's personal beliefs.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23741&reviewer=371
originally posted: 04/11/13 02:44:13
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 New York Film Festival For more in the 2012 New York Film Festival series, click here.

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