Romanian film-maker Christian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills" (Dupa dealuri, 2012) is based on a true story. It was based on the story of a exorcism performed at a remote Orthodox monastery in the north east part of Romania. A ritual gone haywire -- Hollywood studios would have prepared the script in extremes of black and white. That's not case with this compassionate and wise dramatic adaptation by writer/director Mungiu (won the screenplay award at Cannes). This is not a horror movie with faithful priest and hate-spewing villain. It's simply told like an Ingmar Bergman film, where humankind is deeply flawed and God is indifferently silent and the landscape is cloaked in winter.
The film begins with a railway station unification of childhood friends, now in their 20's: Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). Alina cries and hugs Voichita, who were inseparable and shared a bed together at a Romanian orphanage. They’ve been apart since age 18. There are hints that their love was physical, but the bond is emotional and very deep — two girls clinging to each other in a brutal world. Alina has worked as a barmaid in Germany and Voichita has drastically changed her life to become a nun in an desolated, strictly observant convent.
The monastery doesn't have electricity or central heat where women answer to the dictates of the Orthodox priest (Valeriu Andriuta). Alina has come to persuade Voichita to come with her to Germany, where they can both find jobs working on a ship. When Voichita refuses, she gets agitated and threatens suicide. The nuns bind Alina's wrists and take her to a hospital, where the shackles are replaced by a strong tranquilizer. She returns to monastery, after recuperating in the hospital but continues to persuade Voichita and violently bursts in front of priest and nuns. When Alina keeps on acting in an irrational manner, there is talk that she might be possessed by Satan.
Christian Mungiu, who has previously won Palme d'Or award for “4 Months, “3 Weeks and 2 Days,” has once again given us a thematically harrowing and emotionally gripping film. He presents a piercing portrait of a community that has gone far away from central spiritual practices and chosen instead to invest in those which lead to greater human conflict, and pain. There are many shots in the movie, which looks like a masterful painting -- the candlelit dinner of nuns around the afflicted Alina and an image of them carrying her through the snow on a makeshift cross. An occasional usage of cellphone and vehicles passing the mountains reminds us that this is the modern world, or else the setting looks like the medieval period.
"Beyond the Hills" moves at a slow pace, but Mungiu and his excellent cast take the time to allow us to get to understand the monastery. We might have seen over-burdened movies addressing the complexities of sexual confusion, religious conflict, or the psychological wreckage. Here, Mungiu moves effortlessly through the intersection of love,God, loss and godlessness that we barely notice how much he's doing. Although the tale is of 'exorcism gone badly wrong', Mungiu takes a non-judgmental stance, where the main topic is not the existence of evil but the failure of goodness.
The film raises a lot of moral inquiries and valid existential questions about what it really means to be free and alive. It is said that (in the film) there are 464 sins an Orthodox Christian can commit. They have cataloged the sins, so one shouldn't come to confession unprepared. But, there must have been one sin, which that catalog might have left out. It is the sin of caring for fellow human being. We see a world whose changeless background dissonance is the sound of things falling apart, and whose general language is the slightly bored, completely defeated shrug. "Ah, well. What can I do?" This may have missed the list, but it is the worst sin of all.
With an running time of 150 minutes, this is not an easy film to watch, but "Beyond the Hills" is ultimately an engrossing work of realism, challenging our expectations.
Beyond the Hills (Dupa dealuri) -- IMDb