56th BFI London Film Festival: ‘Beyond the Hills’
By Matthew Rodgers On October 21, 2012 @ 3:56 pm In Movies & TV | No Comments
The hills are alive with the sound of barking dogs, incessant gusts of wind, and the intermittent wails of harrowed nuns, in Cristian Mungiu’s insidiously mesmeric tale of a Romanian convent.
Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) grew up in the same orphanage, yet despite their strong friendship, they both went their separate ways when they were too old to stay. Alina moved to Germany to find work, while Voichita turned to God and made her home in the isolated hilltop convent.
Our window into their world begins as Alina returns from Germany, intent on convincing her friend to come with her, despite Voichita now being devoted to God and clearly reluctant to turn her back on “Mama” and “Papa” (her names for the Priest and Mother Superior) and the ordained life that she now leads.
Alina’s persistence in trying to persuade her friend to abandon her faith leads to strife within the tight-knit community and the increasing belief that the devil may be at work, because of Alina’s irrational, sometimes feral behaviour.
More Black Narcissus than Sister Act, Cristian Mungiu’s film is a patient, often unsettling one, unwoven against a chilling backdrop of stark locations and minimalist dialogue.
Framed thematically, it opens with images of expanse; train journeys give way to the sweeping fields of the Romanian landscape, offering up ideas of escape or potential, before we finally settle on the tightly bunched, maze-like intimacy of the nunnery.
Mungiu shoots these sections in an in-your-face, subtly handheld fashion that helps to exaggerate the claustrophobia being suffered by Alina, and also her worsening plight. It’s a wonderfully constructed movie, like a narrative jigsaw, carefully assembled piece by piece, culminating in one of the most memorable final shots of recent times.
There’s a pair of extraordinary turns from Stratan and Flutur. Ambiguous pasts that we’re left to piece together through fleeting moments establish a pair who were dependent on each other, and as convincing as they are as a fractured whole, they are most impressive as singular performances.
Stratan is meek and vulnerable, offering a perfect juxtaposition to the more volatile Flutur. It’s their oddball relationship and behaviour, coupled with the desire to find out where the story is taking them, which drives the pedestrian-paced narrative forward.
Said tempo is indicative of a film requiring patience from the viewer, an approach rewarded with some strikingly underplayed moments. The creepiest suggestion of “horror” takes place in broad daylight in the background of the main shot, and its effect is heightened by this. There are also some lighter moments amid the gloom, in particular when the nuns are going through a sinner’s checklist in order to ascertain the level of confession that Alina must face.
Beyond the Hills defies convention and genre pigeonholing. You’re never sure what kind of film is playing out in front of you. Is it a balanced critique on faith, or an arthouse possession film? Remaining interesting despite the 150 minute running time or the third act descent into repetitive “she’s gone nuts” histrionics, one thing’s for sure, it’s definitely the best Romanian nun movie ever made.
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