There was a time when a European movie about forbidden love in a monastery had altogether different implications.
Beyond the Hills is not the movie to engage in exploitative prurience. It is not a work designed to gratify anything. Taking its cue from the monastic lifestyle it portrays, this slowly-paced two-and-a-half hour downer seems more designed to test the love of even the most devoted cineaste.
Alina (Cristina Flutur) is a troubled young woman who returns to Romania to reconnect with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), the young woman with whom she grew up otherwise unloved in a Romanian orphanage.
Alina wants Voichita to join her in Germany, where they may work and live together. But Voichita is settled in the lifestyle of her fellow nuns, serving the patriarchal priest (Valeriu Andriuta). She has, in short, found God.
In the face of a seemingly unwinnable rivalry, Alina falls into a pattern of increasingly aberrant behaviour, which first lands her in a hospital and later tied to a makeshift wooden stretcher in the church when she is believed to be possessed.
As in his abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, director Cristian Mungiu examines the lot of women in remote parts of Europe where their lives are largely determined by patriarchal traditions and philosophies that haven't budged since the Middle Ages.
One wishes Mungiu might have exercised a more succinct approach to the story. Despite good performances by the two leads (Flutur is a particularly ethereal presence as the conflicted Voichirta), Beyond the Hills is a tough slog.
The end of the film presents an interesting development that might qualify as a miracle if it weren't so thoroughly tragic.
But by the time it occurs, it is too late for engagement. In depicting a kind of bleak, laissez-faire existence, Mingiu practically forces the audience to succumb to the paralytic inertia presented onscreen.
If you long for the bleak intelligence of an Ingmar Bergman film, where humankind is deeply flawed and God is indifferently silent and the landscape is cloaked in perpetual winter, then Beyond the Hills promises to be your cup of despair.
-- Rick Groen, Globe and Mail
It's an enigmatic and austere film from a region where political, sexual and religious repression are as stifling as the sooty air.
-- Joe Williams, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Mungui's rigorous approach to filmmaking isn't a ton of fun to watch, but his ideas stick with you.
-- Chris Hewitt, St. Paul Pioneer Press
The final shot, with windshield wipers struggling to clean away a torrent of muddy water, suggests that no human agency is great enough to handle this world's misery.
-- Colin Covert, Minneapolis Star Tribune