A Test of Faith

Beyond the Hills
(Romania/France/Belgium, 150 min.)
Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga.
Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007, causing a well-deserved chorus of critical praise that continued long after it won the coveted Palme d’Or. 4 Months is a daring film in both style and substance. It provoked the sense of discovery one always hopes to find on the festival circuit and it led many critics to look closer at Romanian cinema as one of the most exciting new film producers in Europe. Beyond the Hills, Romania's recent Oscar submission and Mungiu’s third feature as a solo director (he collaborated on 2009’s Tales from the Golden Age), unfortunately fails to meet the exceedingly high expectations set by its predecessor.

Beyond the Hills is a frustrating follow up piece that often comes on the heels of such a successful breakthrough. Many of the same devices that make 4 Months such a stunning film—such as the use of meticulously crafted long takes—are employed with painstaking effort. The consistencies between the two films will surely lead many filmgoers to hail Mungiu as an auteur. On the other hand, Beyond the Hills might ultimately add to the scepticism of auteur theory, as some viewers (myself included) could see the praise heaped on the film since Cannes as a cinephilic bandwagon effect. Beyond the Hills is more of the same, but with a near-fatal air of pretension.

It’s a “festival film” to a near-comic degree. Few films offer subtitles, excessive long takes, lesbian nuns, and an exorcism all for the price of one admission. Beyond the Hills even ends with a prototypically art-house final shot—a long take, of course—that plays both as an ambiguous puzzler and as a flagrant middle finger to the camera depending on how one wants to read the film. Both interpretations seem compatible.

There’s no denying the immaculate craftsmanship to Mungiu’s compositions, nor to his eye for symbolism and to his skill in crafting intriguing female characters. Beyond the Hills, however, is an arduous struggle to appreciate. There’s a lot to admire in the film and there’s also a lot to hate.

The key to this love/hate relationship lies in Mungiu’s fondness for long takes. Virtually every shot in the film holds for several minutes. Jean Valjean could sing at least a song and an overture here without a single break. Similar to Les Misérables, Beyond the Hills features vary little variation in shot length. Tom Hooper likes the close-up, while Mungiu shoots nearly every scene in medium shot. The camera rarely moves in Beyond the Hills so the static imagery makes this story of distant lovers Volchita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) feel painfully stale. When the camera does move, though, it’s a potent breath of life.

The performances by Stratan and Flutur are equally measured and controlled. Both actresses spend much of the film playing the same note. The rare shifts in dramatic dynamic are as effective as they are tedious. Stratan and Flutur, both making their feature film debut, shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes for their subtle performances. The restraint is noteworthy, but it’s hard to see how they topped the likes of Emmanuelle Riva and Marion Cotillard. The subdued performances eventually add to the monotony of the long takes.

The excess of familiar shots builds a slow introductory act as Alina returns to Volchita, who has now become a nun and pledged her love to Christ. Alina seems possessed by a desire to remove her friend from the nunnery and Mungiu makes us watch from a fixed distance as she observes Volchita’s rituals in the church, including her master/servant relationship with the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) whom she calls “Papa”. From Alina’s perspective, her lifelong friend seems like a recruit within a cult.

A distance grows between the friends during the second act when an unseen incident between Alina and Papa perverts the energy in the monastery. More long takes ensue as Papa advises the nuns that their visitor is possessed by Evil. Contemporary science butts heads with ultra-orthodox rituals and Papa asks the sisters, Volchita included, to turn to faith so that they may rid the girl of her wickedness.

The measured build-up to the exorcism is bound to make or break one’s faith in Mungiu’s stylistic choices. Beyond the Hills is a relentlessly slow film. Painful even. I’ll admit that there was a moment slightly after the one-hour mark where I considered walking out. I’m glad I stayed, however, because although Beyond the Hills plods for an excruciatingly slow first hour and a half, the film pulls a stunner in its final hour by capitalizing upon the taxing stasis of the preceding ninety minutes.

It’s only in the final act that Mungiu invests some energy into the film. The final hour of Beyond the Hills is a phenomenal deconstruction of the monastery’s rituals. Framed primarily through Volchita’s crumbling psychology, Beyond the Hills is fascinatingly provocative. It doesn’t deliver an all-out condemnation of the church, however, as the most rewarding reading of the film’s final moments hinge on an act of faith. Even if it never comes anywhere close to the greatness of 4, Months, 3 Weeks, & 2 Days, Beyond the Hills is, for better or for worse, an undeniable work of art.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★) 

Beyond the Hills is currently playing in Toronto at TIFF BellLightbox.
It opens in Ottawa at The ByTowne in June 7.