Sharing the Best Actress prize between them at last year’s Cannes, Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan play Alina and Voichiţa, two contrasting women who grew up together in an orphanage. After many years apart, Alina – who now lives in Germany – travels back to Romania in order to visit Voichiţa at the walled convent in which she resides. Taken aback by the regimented Orthodox order that her friend is now a part of, Alina is instantly targeted as a destructive force by the seemingly omnipotent head priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and the bespectacled mother superior (Dana Tapalaga). Demonised by those around her, Voichiţa finds herself torn between her childhood ally – whose life comes under threat – and her much-cherished church.
Ignore the ‘slow cinema’ label that has, for one reason or another, followed the film around since its Cannes premiere – Beyond the Hills is a far more concise and spritely piece than some have given it credit for. At 150 minutes, Mungiu’s latest does obviously afford more time to character development and meticulously establishing tone than most; however, shortly after Alina’s unwitting infiltration of Voichiţa’s sect, hushed rumours and whispered accusations begin to snowball out of all control. Tellingly, even the sedate, mouse-like Voichiţa begins to have her own doubts about her estranged friends true motives. As Andriuta’s priest preaches, “The man who leaves and the man who comes back are not the same.”
Key to Mungiu’s ongoing stature as one of Europe’s directorial elite is his skill at casting, and as their shared award win would suggest, he couldn’t have picked two better lead actresses than Flutur and Stratan. Thrust into the heart of a modern day inquisition, the pair deliver performances of incredible subtlety and restraint, with Stratan particularly impressive as a desperately conflicted soul forced to choose between the two most influential individuals in her life – her one and only friend, and her one and only god. A well-rounded cast of supporting players – from righteous do-gooders to snooping busy bodies – add further depth and texture to the drama, creating an effective microcosm of society as a whole, yet one tearing at the seams with superstitious fear and mistrust.
Inspired by two non-fiction novels on institutional abuse by the Romanian writer Tatiana Niculescu Bran (Deadly Confession and Judge’s Book), Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills delicately explores a highly controversial, contemporary subject with the care and intelligence that it necessitates. Though its climactic descent into wild chaos and semi-melodrama may jar with certain audiences, already lulled into a false sense of security by the film’s pastoral opening half, its anti-sensationalist handling of organised religion in Eastern Europe is both refreshing and quietly affecting.