Romanian writer-director Christian Mungiu’s superb new feature, Beyond the Hills, is an astonishingly sneaky work of religious and cultural criticism, nearly as duplicitous as Old Pitch himself. Its potency relies to a significant extent on a rather nasty manipulation of the viewer’s perceptions and expectations. However, unlike the cheap twists that characterize big-budget and two-bit thrillers alike, Beyond the Hills‘ chicanery is of a generic rather than narrative nature. The film functions as a virtuosic cinematic parlor trick, designed to provoke the viewer into a stark confrontation with the most monstrous aspects of a conservative, demon-haunted religiosity. In its chilly and somber way, Mungui’s film is a fictional corollary to documentary exposés such as Deliver Us From Evil and Jesus Camp, depicting as it does the abuses that are obfuscated, rationalized, and even glorified under the auspices of the sacred. Nevertheless, despite its bluntly damning portrayal of Romanian Orthodoxy—and of patriarchal, reactionary theology in general—Beyond the Hills is a remarkably sober engagement with superstitious hysteria as an all-too-human phenomenon. The sensation that emerges from the film is not a white-hot anti-religious rage, but a sort of perplexed secularist gloom at our species’ propensity to engage in oblivious cruelty, so long as it is cloaked in whispered invocations.
A similar inhumanity is a central component of Mungiu’s 2007 Palm d’Or-winning sophomore feature, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, although in that film the depraved social strictures are of a nominally atheistic nature. In its portrayal of a back-alley abortion in the waning days of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, 4 Months relies upon a stone-faced realism to establish the suffocating terror that suffuses its female protagonists’ desperate odyssey. In this way, Mungiu creates a first-rate thriller that also functions as pointed attack on the misogyny of autocratic authority, providing a sharp illustration of the everyday means by which women’s liberty is constrained.
Beyond the Hills explores similar thematic territory, but the two films employ markedly divergent approaches. 4 Months depends on straightforward adherence to genre, fulfilling the promise of its thriller form with an almost ruthless resolve. Indeed, the cold-sweat atmosphere that Mungiu’s 2007 film summons is strongly dependent on the manner in which its screenplay suggests each enervating movement before it occurs. Beyond the Hills, meanwhile, relies on a genre fake-out. While it dresses in the vestments of an reserved character-based drama, the film’s story is gradually revealed as a work of demonic horror—albeit one in which the supernatural exists solely in the minds of the perpetrating zealots. Other filmmakers have exploited narrative ambiguity to phenomenal effect in recent years—Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Abbas Kiaorstomi’s Certified Copy come to mind—but Mungiu’s new feature is the rare work that that plays upon the viewer’s assumptions regarding artistic categories.
Adapted from a pair of non-fiction novels by Romanian news producer-turned-author Tatiana Niculescu Bran, Beyond the Hills‘ screenplay relies on a tantalizing opacity to hook the viewer. Two women—diffident Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and raw-nerved Alina (Christina Flutur)—meet at a train station in a Romanian town. The pair seems to have a history, but the film’s determined naturalism precludes the kind of spurious exposition that would quickly clarify their relationship. Instead, the viewer must piece together the background from various provocative questions, offhand comments, and frank gestures. Gradually, the past comes into focus. Years ago, the women were raised together in a local orphanage, where they became inseparable friends and eventually lovers. Cast off from the facility when she turned eighteen, Alina fled to Germany in search of work, while Voichita remained in Romania.
Alina has returned from her apparently rudderless tribulations abroad to retrieve her beloved and pursue opportunities elsewhere, but Voichita has undergone a dramatic personal transformation. She is now living as a novitiate at a tiny, austere Orthodox convent, and it is to this sanctuary that she escorts Alina, albeit with some wariness. Once the pair arrives at the humble rural monastery, the lines of conflict that will dominate the remainder of the film become apparent. Voichita, spurred by a tangle of Christian obligation and lingering affection for Alita, seeks a way to aid her troubled friend that will not conflict with her newfound religious commitments. Both her fellow nuns and the community’s governing priest (Valeriu Andriuta) take a dim view of Voichita’s efforts, regarding Alita’s mere presence as a disruption to the convent’s social order. Moreover, suspicions quickly surface regarding the “unnatural” relationship between the two women, as well as the spiritual corruption that the sisters allegedly sense in Alita.
For her part, Alita exhibits symptoms of sexual obsession and general psychological precariousness. Furthermore, she seems utterly unwilling to entertain the notion that Voichita’s pious calling might be authentic. Alita’s perverse need to possess Voichita by any means leads her to act out in ways that are alternately conciliatory and blasphemous, provoking rising vexation, fear, and anger within the convent. The newcomer’s growing emotional dissolution leads to periodic narrative detours into town—first to a psychiatric hospital, and then later to Alita’s former foster home—but the action continually returns to the remote monastery. On the cusp of the vital Easter holiday, the tension between the convent’s residents and Alita finally ignites an unspeakable act of mercy-cum-brutality. Fed up with the woman’s aggression, vulgarity, and sacrilege, the priest and nuns bind the frenzied Alita to a pair of wooden planks and subject her to an extended, grueling rite of exorcism. Paralyzed by conflicting loyalties and sheer terror, Voichita must decide whether her conscience permits her to take part in a remedy that seems more akin to the torture of a mentally ill woman than a palliative for an imperiled soul.
In a cinematic landscape ever more dominated by dreary conformity, what’s most impressive about Beyond the Hills is the distinctiveness of its concept: It is, fundamentally, a supernatural horror tale drained of its otherworldly elements and reframed as work of contemporary social realism. Indeed, Mungiu’s film is a shrewd inversion of The Exorcist—a work that remains the first and last vision of demonic possession in the pop cultural consciousness. William Friedkin’s visceral and deeply Catholic adaptation of William Peter Blatty’s pulp novel is a forceful vision of human fragility wrapped in old-school Hollywood fright tactics. Beyond the Hills, meanwhile, lands its existential sucker-punch by eschewing the formal conventions of horror cinema. Mungiu’s arid, ragged-edged approach to his tale convinces the viewer that they are witnessing a very different sort of a film. Depending on the angle, Beyond the Hills could be mistaken for a queer-flavored romantic tragedy, a socially conscious miserablist drama, or an allegory about the collaborations of the Romanian Orthodox Church in the Communist decades. Arguably, the film functions well enough as a representative of any of those species (and others), but it is the film’s sly employment of horror tropes that lends it critiques such breathtaking bite.
People of faith will doubtlessly find much that is discomforting in Beyond the Hill’s bleak depiction of religious terror gone haywire. Certainly, Mungiu could not have selected a more fitting setting for such a portrayal than a rural Orthodox convent (at least in contemporary Christendom), which in the film’s universe offers up a witch’s brew of codified sexism, snarling homophobia, and generalized anxiety regarding the encroachment of cosmopolitan modernity. Yet while Beyond the Hills does not shrink from the ugliness a hellfire-obsessed religiosity, the film never assumes the tone of a jeremiad against belief as a phenomenon. (It is, meanwhile, partly a broadside against the lingering, terror-stricken medievalism that still thrives in some parts of rural Eastern Europe). Mungiu’s film is mostly agnostic with respect to the legitimacy of Voichita’s tremulous faith, but it is clear-eyed on the question of human dignity and the sanctity of bodily liberty. While Alita’s behavior is often appallingly selfish and dangerously erratic, the moment when she is restrained and chained “for her own good” is the turning point that reveals the nature of the film’s horror: Not the fear of a mentally ill person, but for her.
The film’s coda is crucial to an appreciation of its is grim assessment of the supernatural’s awkward place in a secular twenty-first century. Following a tragic outcome from Alita’s exorcism, law enforcement authorities appear at the convent and question the priest and nuns about their role in the incident. In the harsh light of hindsight, the monastery’s residents look less like whirly-eyed fanatics and more like children with guilty consciences. A plaintive, half-hearted declaration clings to the sisters’ shell-shocked countenances: We thought we were doing the right thing. While Beyond the Hills is resolute in its condemnation of religiously-motivated abuses and blinkered belief systems, it does not gloat as the priest and nuns are handcuffed and hauled away. Rather, it rhetorically asks how it is that what seems like pity at midnight can so clearly resemble callousness at dawn. Above all, the film illustrates how seductive it is to imagine oneself as a lonely champion of righteousness in a fallen world, and how fiendishly easy it is for fear to overwhelm compassion when the phantom demons of that world seem to be drawing near.