Director: Cristian Mungiu
Screenplay: Cristian Mungiu
Inspired by the Non-Fiction Novels of: Tatiana Niculescu Bran
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta
Producer: Cristian Mungiu
Running Time: 150 min
BBFC Certificate: 12
These days the Cannes Film Festival has a habit of keeping its competition largely limited to films by known directors who have already found critical success with previous films. So when Romanian director Cristian Mungiu won the Palme D'or back in 2007 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days after only having directed one film prior to that with little fanfare, people sat up and took notice. I must admit I haven't seen his breakthrough film, but I've heard nothing but praise for it, so this, his follow-up Beyond the Hills (after directing part of the anthology film Tales from the Golden Age) had a weight of expectation behind it. Despite picking up a joint Best Actress award at last year's Cannes Film Festival, the film itself received an underwhelming response (not negative, but less positive than its predecessor), like a number of the films included that year. However, now it has received a home release in the UK and the hype and not-always-reliable festival buzz has settled, it's time to see for ourselves.
Inspired by a true account which had been put into non-fiction novel form by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, Beyond the Hills begins with Alina (Cristina Flutur) arriving from Germany to a monastery in Romania where her friend (and former lover) Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) lives to serve God. Determined to stay close to Voichita, who has been with her since growing up in the orphanage together, Alina tries to get her to move to Germany with her. Voichita won't give up her calling though and the monastery's father (Valeriu Andriuta) won't take her back if she just leaves for a couple of months (“the man who leaves is not the same when he returns”). Due to this, Alina tries her best to live amongst the nuns at the monastery, but her jealousy and passion drive her to violent episodes which prompt the father and his nuns to take desperate and increasingly drastic measures to restrain and 'cure' her.
This was quite an unusual film. I don't mean in a David Lynch, surreal or 'whacky' sort of way, but in that I found it difficult to see exactly what the message or aim of the film was. At times it seemed to be damning backward religious practises and at others it seemed to be antagonising the unsympathetic ways of modern life. The final shot of the film sees a filthy splash of brown slush splatter across a windscreen only to be unceremoniously smeared around by the windscreen wiper, almost suggesting that 'shit happens' and even if we can't get rid of it, nobody seems to care anymore. Or at least that was what came to my mind.
I don't necessarily see my failure to grasp a solid intent as a problem though, in fact I think that's why I liked the film. It's refreshing to see something that isn't blatantly one-sided in a theoretical argument or laden with lofty opinions on a touchy subject. Mungiu's ambiguous and almost indifferent approach makes the debates that can be gleaned from the subject matter all the more interesting.
On the negative side, the leanings towards indifference and the unsentimental presentation can make it quite a cold experience at times and I wouldn't say I was as heartbroken as I would expect from the events on display. Alina is a difficult character to like too and her obsession with Voichita is difficult to fully buy into. Add to this quite a hefty running time and it's not the easiest of watches.
However, a film like this isn't looking to be likeable or easy to watch, so Beyond the Hills remains a curiously fascinating film about religion's place in the modern world and the lack of sympathy and understanding each 'side' has for each other. It's slow and heavy going, but unique, thought-provoking and quietly engaging through its uncertainty.
Beyond the Hills is out on 10th June on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Artificial Eye. I watched the DVD version and must say I was very disappointed. The film seemed to be presented in letterbox rather than anamorphic 16:9 format, meaning that to view the subtitles on my projector (and the same would go for a widescreen TV) I had to either squash the image down to an ultra-thin widescreen or watch it shrunk into a 4:3 window within my widescreen display. This is pretty poor I must say. Anamorphic presentation is the standard these days and I expect more from a label like Artificial Eye who release some excellent films. Perhaps this was just the format of the screener I was sent, but it had a full menu with language and chapter options etc. so I imagine it is the final version. If anyone has seen the released version and can confirm, let me know.
The release's press release stated the release would have an interview with director Cristian Mungiu, but it wasn't on the screener I was sent. There was only a trailer.