Beyond the Hills

CANNES REVIEW: Lesbian nuns, pyschotic ex-lovers and excorcism are featured in a long, serious update on Romanian New Wave.

Nuns on the verge of a nervous breakdown have a surprisingly strong cinematic pedigree stretching from the Powell and Pressburger classic Black Narcissus to Almodovar's Dark Habits. The chief poster boy for Romanian cinema's New Wave, Cristian Mungiu now adds to that legacy with Beyond the Hills. This austere psychological drama lacks the political bite and suspense of his highly acclaimed abortion thriller, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but it still should earn a discerning global audience and awards buzz.

Alina (Cristina Flutur), an emotionally disturbed young woman living in Germany, arrives in a remote mountainous region of Romania to visit her former orphanage classmate and onetime lover, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). She is expecting to leave with her, but Voichita has become a novice at an Orthodox church community run by a highly conservative priest. Despite life in gulag-like conditions, Voichita has found her calling.

A desperate Alina tries various strategies to undermine the priest and tempt Voichita away, including attempted suicide and arson. But when she becomes violent, the nuns begin to fear she is diabolically possessed, tying her to a wooden stretcher before subjecting her to starvation and exorcism.

The Romanian New Wave became a global cause celebre when Mungiu won the Cannes Palme d'Or in 2007 with 4 Months. Since then the term has mostly been attached to politically charged retro-dramas set during the twilight of Ceausescu's Communist regime. Beyond was co-produced by the leaders of Belgian social realism, the Dardennes brothers, and while it maintains the movement's no-frills naturalism and long single takes, it makes a definitive break in subject matter.

The lurid plot of Beyond may sound far-fetched, but it was inspired by real events in a Moldovan monastery less than a decade ago, and Mungiu maintains an admirably non-judgmental distance from his characters.

His harshly beautiful depiction of destructive dogma and sacrificial female victims feels at times like vintage Lars von Trier. It is certainly shot with Dogme 95-style naturalism, stripped of such vain frippery as non-diegetic sound or special effects. Shot on high-contrast digital video, many of the film's color-drained tableaux have the Calvinist purity of an old Dutch Master painting. These hills are certainly not alive with the sound of music.

Admittedly, two and a half hours of thwarted love and spiritual torment is something of an endurance test, and Beyond is less fun than any film about lesbian nuns and their psychotic ex-lovers ought to be. But it is an engrossingly serious work and confirms Mungiu as a maturing talent.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Cast: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur
Director: Cristian Mungiu No rating, 150 minutes

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