Defying the Conventional, by Scott Nye
In the opening shot of Christian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, we follow a woman, clad all in black, whose face we only glimpse, walk through a trainyard, clearly searching for somebody. Finally, a train passes, and there She is, standing mere feet, excited beyond all description. The woman in black tries to halt her as another train is soon to cross their path, but She cannot wait, rushing towards the woman in black, grabbing her tight, crying tears of joy over their reunion, as her friend tries to at once calm her and push her away. “People are watching,” she cautions. But She doesn’t care.
The entire film is established with this opening shot. First, the aesthetic rigor – Mungiu shoots every scene with a single setup, finding the right angle and movement to capture the key players in a narratively and visually pleasing way, moving his large cast about to ensure the audience can see who’s speaking, but largely treating the camera like the proscenium of a stage. This is not to say the film feels uncinematic; far from it. That’s just a little element we used to call “direction.”
From a story and character standpoint, it’s all there as well. Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichiţa (Cosmina Stratan), we come to find out, grew up in an orphanage together, and shared much more than simple friendship, but when it came time to leave, Alina fled to Germany, while Voichiţa entered the convent in which most of the film takes place. Upon Alina’s arrival at the train station, we instantly see everything we come to learn about her – that she was lonely, remained very much in love with Voichiţa, and is perhaps a little unstable. Voichiţa, meanwhile, feels strongly for Alina, but is more concerned with the road her life is now on, in service of God – clad forever in the black robes assigned to her, letting only pieces of herself peek out.
We’re also introduced to our central point of view. Nearly all of this is presented from Voichiţa’s perspective, and I can’t think of a scene that passes without her involvement. Even when we come to sympathize with Alina, and boy do we ever, it represents a conflict in Voichiţa’s own allegiances, which dally without ever truly straying. I think of Roman Polanski’s strange decision in Chinatown to shoot Jack Nicholson so often from behind, a daring move even in those days which would never be tolerated today, but it cements the perspective of the story without overtly stating it, resorting to voiceover, or other cheap tactics. We’re just gradually, naturally swayed to Voichiţa’s worldview, which is so key as she’s aligned herself with some woefully misguided followers of Christ, and we can’t lose touch with her amidst the well-meaning, but ultimately destructive, mob.
And, finally, we’re introduced to a dramatic structure that will repeat until it, eventually, collapses in on itself; an uncertainty punctuated with emotional explosions that are slowly calmed, but only enough to get by. The roots of Voichiţa and Alina’s conflict are never truly addressed, and any attempt on Alina’s part to find a way they can live together, to connect, are instantly, but gently, rebuked by Voichiţa. So the conflict manifests itself in stranger and more aggressive ways until, finally, it becomes untenable. At two-and-a-half hours, it’s a slow build, wisely punctuated with powerful releases, and never less than enthralling.
Flutur and Stratan anchor this in an important way, to say the least. They shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes, and I can see why. Not only is one not particularly “better,” but each is so essential to the other and the picture as a whole. As much as the story is from Voichiţa’s point of view, there’s little doubt that in terms of the thematic and emotional undercurrent, they’re co-leads, and their inherent contradictions are fascinating. Stratan seems so fragile from the outset, but Voichiţa is revealed to be firmly grounded in her beliefs and life choices. Alina, meanwhile, could abandon anything at the drop of a hat, and the wild look in Flutur’s eyes absolutely convinces us that for all her professed certainty, she lacks Voichiţa’s groundedness. Flutur is also asked to do some astounding physical work as an actress that I won’t divulge, but by simply showing her onscreen, Mungiu creates the kind of haunting imagery that remains present for days after exiting the theater.
Beyond the Hills has about as simple a narrative as one could construct, but Mungiu’s meditations therein on the nature of good and evil, charity, and perhaps most strikingly the institutional, uncaring evil at the heart of not only Romanian civilization, but most modern societies, are so deeply felt and evocatively expressed through his characters. Mungiu doesn’t damn religion wholly, just the extent to which it’s allowed to intrude on the lives of those who want no part of it. The convent is seen as a natural caretaker, a sanctuary, almost a second hospital to an extent that even the priest objects to, but is all too willing to accept. No official thinks twice about releasing a very sick woman to their care – after all, they’re a bunch of nuns! – but as soon as things go badly, they’re the first to be condemned. And more than anything, this inability for anyone to take responsibility, either for past actions or for their future, is what cripples everyone here. It’s about as simultaneously thrilling and draining as anything that’s come since the heyday of Ingmar Bergman.