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CANNES – Nuns on the verge of a nervous breakdown have a surprisingly strong cinematic pedigree stretching from the Powell and Pressburger classic Black Narcissus to Bunuel’s Viridiana, Russell’s The Devils and 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, a serious-minded contender in the current Cannes competition line-up.
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At well over two hours, this austere psychological drama lacks the political bite and pulse-racing suspense of Mungiu’s highly acclaimed abortion thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. But it should still earn a discerning global audience based on the director’s solid track record and unquestionable technical skill.
Alina, a emotionally disturbed young woman now living in Germany, arrives in a remote mountainous region of Romania to visit her former orphanage classmate and one-time lover, Voichi?a. She is expecting to leave with her, but Voichi?a has become a devout novice at an Orthodox church community run by a highly conservative priest. Despite a life of hardship in almost gulag-like conditions, Voichi?a has found her calling in life.
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An increasingly desperate Alina tries various strategies to undermine the priest and tempt Voichi?a 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, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Since then the term has mostly been attached to politically charged retro-dramas set during the twilight of Ceau?escu’s Communist regime. A co-production between Romania, France and Belgium, Mungiu’s fourth feature was co-produced by the leading lights of Belgian social realism, the Dardennes brothers. It maintains the movement’s stylistic roots in no-frills naturalism and long single takes, but it makes a definitive break in terms of subject matter, tackling a timeless human drama in a contemporary setting.
The lurid plot of Beyond the Hills may sound dramatically far-fetched, but it was actually inspired by real events in a Moldovan monastery less than a decade ago. Basing his script on two “non-fiction novels” about this case by former BBC reporter Tatiana Niculescu Bran, Mungiu maintains an admirably non-judgmental distance from his characters throughout. The needy, demanding, unsympathetic Alina is never an obvious victim. The priest and nuns are morally flawed but essentially well-meaning. Even the climatic exorcism occurs off screen, a smart choice given the weight of cinematic cliché such events have accumulated over the decades.
Filmed on location at a specially constructed church compound in the hills some 100 km from the Romanian capital of Bucharest, Mungiu’s 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 then film’s colour-drained tableaux have all the Calvinist purity of an old Dutch Master painting. These hills are certainly not alive with the sound of music.
Fortunately Mungui assembles an interesting cast of faces to hold our attention, many of them big-screen novices. A sometime journalist and TV reporter making her film debut, Cosima Stratan is a real discovery, her rounded features and haunted eyes managing to radiate deep spiritual anguish with the most minimal expression. In one crucial scene, her luminous face is framed mid screen for several electrifying minutes as her universe of comforting moral certainties collapses around her.
Admittedly two and a half hours of thwarted love and spiritual torment is something of an endurance test, especially considering the action rarely ventures outside its single bleak location. The film’s mid section, especially, feels slow and repetitive. Only during the final act, mostly shot in snow, does Mungiu remind us of the tightly wound tension and crisp visual composition that made 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days such a powerful thriller.
Beyond the Hills 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 with more universal stories to tell than those defined by Romania’s recent political past.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival, (In Competition), May 18
Production company: Mobra Films
Cast: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriu??, Dana Tapalaga
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Producer: Cristian Mungiu
Executive producers: Pascal Caucheteux, Gregoire Sorlat, Vincent Maraval, Jean Labadie, Bobby Paunescu, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes
Director of photography: Oleg Mutu
Sales agent: Wild Bunch
Rating TBC, 150 minutes
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