The 2005 film “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” questioned whether the death of a young woman (Jennifer Carpenter of “Dexter”) was the result of well-meaning religious zealotry or the malign assault of Old Scrub himself. An interesting piece of work that tried to straddle the border between legal thriller and spook-out, it couldn’t quite resist suggesting that genuine demonic forces were in play.
A prize winner at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, “Beyond the Hills” isn’t much like that movie, tonally. But it shares (without acknowledgement) similar core material: the true story of a young German woman named Anneliese Michel who was, well, exorcised to death. Was she “possessed,” as we have come to know the term? “Beyond the Hills” never pretends to be a supernatural thriller. Instead, it examines the collision of religious faith, sexual repression, mental illness and the failures of friendship and social services in modern Romania.
It’s the latest from director Christian Mungiu. Anyone who saw his brilliant but grueling film about abortion and political repression, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” will know what they’re in for. That’s both recommendation and warning.
We meet the film’s central figures as they reunite at a train station. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is a solemn, ethereal figure swathed in timeless black. Alina (Cristina Flutur) wears a modern track suit.
Beyond their clothes, the difference between the reunited women is a new emotional gulf: Alina is a volatile, open wound of need, love and despair, returning to Romania from a lonely life doing odd jobs in Germany. The greater world hasn’t done right by her. Voichita, by comparison, is sealed off and passive. She has turned her back on that greater world and burrowed into the microcosm of an Eastern Orthodox, ramshackle Christian community called New Hill Monastery.
In their hesitant first days back together, we come to understand the women’s past. They grew up in an orphanage, where abuse came in many forms. Their purest connection became each other, emotionally and sexually. From this background, it’s easy to understand both why Voichita would seek solace in the church and Alina would seek it, again, with the woman who was her only source of comfort in her youth. The problem is that the church that has welcomed Voichita condemns not only “normal” sexual relationships but, most definitely, the one that she and Alina had, however briefly.
The monastery is overseen by a priest known as Papa (Valeriu Andriuta) and his female counterpart, a.k.a. Mama (Dana Tapalaga). However strict they are, neither is viewed by the movie as foolish or evil. (Tapalaga’s performance, in particular, is sunlit with quiet warmth and decency.)
Yes, “Beyond the Hills” finds quiet satire in the monastery. Gossiping about the volatile Alina, speculating about her years in Germany, one of the nuns says, “I hope she didn’t join some cult” — spoken to her fellow sisters, all identically dressed, all following the same harsh strictures doled out by their Papa. And the movie extracts the sly humor you’d expect from a scene in which the nuns prepare Alina for confession, reading aloud their sect’s official list of 464 sins, urging her to write down the numbers of each she has committed.
And finally, yes, it’s a terrible insight into this narrowly focused world that any rebellious action, especially from a woman, is instantly seen as evidence of manipulation from the Enemy Below. Nevertheless, the film is not an anti-religious screed. The monastery is clearly a valid refuge for some souls, left bereft by a larger cultural framework that just doesn’t work. We see those limitations in visits to the women’s former orphanage, the home of Alina’s onetime foster family, and even the hospital, which sometimes simply doesn’t have enough ambulances to dispatch to the needy. “Beyond the Hills” is a tragedy about the ways in which well-meaning people and circumstances can come together, and fail.
Mungiu apparently filmed the scenes in chronological order, a rare process that quietly deepens what we see. At more than two-and-a-half hours long, this is a demanding work that intimately acquaints us with the coldness and tedium of monastic life and of Eastern European poverty. But it pays off. Its austerity can bloom into cool and sudden beauty.
There’s a long, single-take scene near the end that focuses in the distance on Voichita’s pale, silent, lunar face above a crowd of muttering men and women. It’s one of the simplest and loveliest things I’ve seen onscreen in a while. Mungiu won the Cannes award for Best Screenplay, and Stratan and Flutur were jointly named Best Actress. That makes sense, because in some ways they create two halves of a single soul, quietly torn in two.
“Beyond the Hills.” With Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga. Directed by Christian Mungiu. In Romanian with subtitles. 152 minutes. Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.