Nuns On The Ruin: Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills (2012) – DVD review
A nunsploitation movie shot as Slow Cinema, this marries an intensely serious inquisition into religion with a bleakly funny parable of cultural inertia.
Beyond The Hills
(Cristian Mungiu, 2012)
Cinema is one of the most meditative and spiritual of art forms, perhaps because the experience of sitting in the dark in rapture at the events on-screen is so like being in church. Yet cinema seldom does religion well, since it is far easier to blow stuff up. Occasionally, though, a film comes along with the weight to tackle this big subject, and Beyond The Hills is just such a beast: a remarkable portrait of seclusion and devotion.
The title sounds gnomic but is quite literal: this story of a monastery gripped by doubt and madness takes place out of the way of the modern world. Blink and you might miss the tell-tale cameo by a laptop that gives away the fact that, unlike Mungiu’s previous Communist-era films, this takes place in the 21st century. But the film shares kinship with Mungiu’s Tales From The Golden Age and especially his Palme D’Or-winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, in its depiction of Romanian culture as one in which traditions die hard, stifling the dreams of the young.
The story is simple – Alina returns home to see her friend (and, it is implied, lover) Voichita, but the latter has taken her vows and lives simply as a nun. Both are orphans, but where Alina is adrift, Voichita has moored herself to a surrogate family (the priest and mother superior are known as Papa and Mama). This drives the troubled Alina to distraction, and her presence has much the same impact on the monastery as the titular xenomorph did in Alien.
An assault on Orthodox religion, then? Partly, yes but the film weaves real ambiguity out of Voichita’s motives for joining the Church. She parrots the father’s unforgivingly stern advice by rote, as if brainwashed, yet she never feels like a victim; instead, her faith comes across as being incredibly strong and Mungiu contrasts her with a fellow nun who is clearly using her vocation as an escape from past tragedy. Similarly, the priest is a reactionary blowhard… until you realise he genuinely wants to do the right thing within his narrow parameters.
And so the simple premise is extended into a two-and-a-half-hour film in the style of Eastern Europe slow cinema: you can feel Tarkovsky and Tarr in the unblinking long takes. Yet Mungiu has a dramatist’s grip, and adds further layers of complexity as the film bounces back and forth between the monastery and the ‘normal’ world under the volatile mood swings of Alina. The intensity arrives early and never lets up, until the point where Mungiu trains us to expect the worst by exploding some off-screen calamity whenever things get too quiet.
It sounds serious, and the performances – especially Cristina Flutur’s frenzied playing as Alina – are a natural evolution from 4 Weeks’ relentless honesty. Yet Tales From The Golden Age proved that Mungiu also has a satirist’s instinct, and Beyond The Hills plays equally well as a black farce, in which Alina remains stuck in the monastery because, literally, every other part of society has abandoned her. Even the Church takes on the burden unwillingly, and there is dark humour to the way that the hitherto upright father’s shoulders deflate when he realises he’s not going to get rid of Alina.
For all the meaty, ambiguous talk about faith, the film’s centrepiece is a cruel, Bunuellian set-piece in which the nuns read Alina the official list of sins she’ll have to confess to. Note the number of each one that applies, they tell her… and she jots down every number with an inscrutable, deadpan face worthy of Buster Keaton. Communism might be over, but there’s an even older bureaucracy of rules to overcome.