BEYOND THE HILLS. Starring Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur. Directed by Christian Mungiu. 156 mins. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language).
Christian Mungiu has become one of Romania’s most celebrated directors. He won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007 for his powerful film on abortion,4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days. He made an intriguing collection of Romanian short stories in 2009, Tales from a Golden Age. In 2012, Beyond the Hills won the prize for best screenplay and the best actress award, shared by the two stars, Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, who had never made a film before.
Beyond the Hills is based on actual events which occurred in 2005. In a Romanian Orthodox monastery in Moldavia, in the eastern part of Romania, there was the death of a young woman during an exorcism ritual. The police investigated and those taking part were found guilty of the woman’s death. This film opens up the case, highlighting the condition of the woman who died, her mental and emotional states, focusing on the role of the priest in charge who decided on the exorcism and the nuns who assisted.
Mungiu has a powerful visual style. So many of the sequences are like filmed stage action but the impact is not theatrical in the confined sense. Rather, the focus of the audience on the scene, the characters and the action in medium close-up and long takes, means that the sense of realism is heightened. We, the audience, are right there, observing the accumulation of realistic detail, and being drawn into the action. This may account for the length of the film, over two and a half hours, but for most audiences this will not matter so much because of the intense and real experience.
While the film begins at a crowded railway station and there are visits to the local hospital, most of the action is in the remote monastery, where water comes from a well, where there is no electricity but communication is made through mobile phones. The priest in charge, who may be something of a rebel against the diocese and is called Papa, is devout and manages a functioning community where the religious superior, called Mama, is a practical and motherly nun. There are several sisters and associates and the faithful sometimes come for prayer. Life is basic, there is an outreach to an orphanage in the town, but there is a good spirit in the group.
When Amina comes back from Germany to see her friend Voiticha who has entered the community, she makes a move to stay but is mentally disturbed because of her relationship with Voiticha (lesbian undertones), her loneliness in Germany, her lack of faith. She is made to confess and attend prayer but this leads to breakdown and seizures which the doctors cannot take care of. Which leads to further disturbance which the priest interprets as diabolical possession and performs rituals while Amina fasts. This has a profound effect on Voiticha, her sense of vocation and prayer.
Clearly, the priest and the community, relying on their sense of tradition as their practical ways of dealing with problems are out of their depth, not recognising the mental issues, thinking they are doing the right thing, good intentions but limited experience. The medical response is particularly harsh while the police are far more sympathetic.
Romanians have said that the film needs to be considered in the cultural context of the remote area, the traditions of the Church (which is certainly unecumenical here with the priest saying that entering a non-Orthodox deserves damnation), the isolation of groups from the mainstream, limited experience of illness and mental states.
The film is quite a powerful experience and ends with a striking moment as a truck drives past the police car on a wet morning! (Some of the subtitles are too American in their colloquial tone for such a setting: What’s up?, that’s tough! And the use of the word ‘read’ for ‘perform the ritual’ seems odd.)
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 8 2013.