By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
“Beyond the Hills” takes us to a remote — in every sense — monastery in Romania, a place where the trappings of the 21st century are visible, but not dominant. The movie is a fictionalized version of an event that happened recently at just such a monastery.
The incident begins with the arrival of Alina (Cristina Flutur), who has been working as a maid in Germany to make money. She is reuniting with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), a devout nun at the monastery.
The film implies that after they grew up together in an orphanage, the two women became lovers. But Voichita has now given herself completely and sincerely to God, much to Alina’s frustration and eventual irrational fury.
This simmering tension causes worried clucking amongst the other nuns, as well as the priest who presides over their very orthodox order. At a certain point Alina’s uncontrollable responses are interpreted as something supernatural, and the movie shifts into the realm of modern exorcism.
But in no way is “Beyond the Hills” a horror film. Director Cristian Mingiu, whose “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” was a riveting and award-winning international success, takes a studied, unhurried look at this uncomfortable subject.
Because Mingiu’s style is so hands-off (he’s not going to tell you what you’re supposed to feel about all this), the movie can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Is it critical of the superstitions of religion, of the cold efficiency of the medical establishment, of bureaucracy that exists at every level?
Perhaps all of them, but Mingiu’s even-handed approach doesn’t give you the Oliver Stone-style haranguing that might make the film easier to watch. It may be that instead of social criticism, Mingiu is depicting the inability of people to listen to each other, a failing that happens in scene after scene.
At 150 minutes, the movie is not exactly a breeze, although the rhythm of it becomes almost hypnotizing after a while. It helps that the people on screen are so interesting to look at, even the nuns in their full habits; Stratan is especially compelling, with her utter simplicity and her true-believer’s unblinking gaze.
Nobody’s evil and nobody’s a villain, and everything turns out wrong anyway. This skeptical vision leads to a final shot that is enigmatic, yet somehow seems to say it all.
“Beyond the Hills” 3 stars
Two formerly intimate friends reunite at a remote monastery, where one of them has become a devout nun. This simmering tension leads to a troubling series of mistakes, in Cristian Mingiu’s slow but mostly hypnotizing study of a world in which there is no actual evil, but where nothing works well regardless. In Romanian, with English subtitles.
Rated: Not rated; probably R for nudity, subject matter.
Showing: Seven Gables.