'Beyond the Hills': Outstanding but heavy
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
This recent film from Romania, a country whose cinema is having a renaissance, is a certifiably outstanding motion picture. But I have to be honest here: It's also the kind of motion picture that tends to irritate certain kinds of moviegoers, who then (not without reason, I suppose) like to blame their subsequent resentment on the reviewers who pronounced it a good or great movie in the first place.
Hence, let me come right out with it: "Beyond the Hills" is a two-and-a-half-hour picture that takes some of the stylistic signposts described by Paul Schrader in his landmark study "Transcendental Style in Film" and uses them to tell a story in which precisely nothing is transcended, either in spite or because of the religious setting of the story. Which may be part of the point. In any event, what we're dealing with is not something considered entertaining in a conventional sense.
It is, however, entirely gripping, from the very first shot, in which a young woman, seen in medium shot, crosses a pair of railroad tracks (despite the soundtrack telling us that a train is speeding very close by) to greet and hug her friend who's meeting her at the station. The two young women are Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur), and despite having been raised in the same orphanage, they're on divergent life paths: Alina left her foster home to work as a domestic in Germany, while Voichita is now living in a far-flung monastery, preparing to become an Orthodox nun. Voichita thinks her old friend is coming for a visit, but Alina, in desperate emotional straits that she's at a loss to verbally articulate, wants more, and immediately tries to persuade Voichita to leave the monastery and accompany her back to Germany. This conflict sets the stage for worse, as Alina's sullen behavior arouses the disapprobation of Voichita's fellow novitiates, the mother superior, and the patient but thoroughly by-the-holy-book priest who oversees the monastery. In the midst of the retreat's self-imposed privations, which are themselves cocooned by a pretty dysfunctional outside-world environment (the police and medical functionaries who turn up at various points are super-stressed, stymied by bureaucracy, oddly incurious until the point where action could have been constructively taken is long past), suspicions turn to superstitions, and the idea of demonic possession is breached.
But this is no horror story in the mode of "The Exorcist." No, "Beyond the Hills" is a movie told in long takes, quietly observant scenes whose heightened naturalism seems to be expectant of a higher power that never manifests itself to affect the lives of its suffering characters. Despite the terrible things that occur, the movie never offers an active judgment, and never takes the many opportunities the particulars of the story offer in which to wax ironic or snide. And it saves its one shock effect for the very end of the movie. No, "Beyond the Hills" is very deliberately even-tempered in its depiction of a humanity that consistently works against its own best interests. It's beautifully crafted. Director Christian Mungiu, who also made the similarly upsetting two-women-in-trouble drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days" in 2007, really makes the viewer feel the cold in the barely heated environs of that monastery. While parts of "Beyond the Hills" are excruciating to sit through, its overall effect is powerful, haunting. Not a fun night at the movies, perhaps, but certainly a memorable and stirring one.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.