Something unpleasant happened to these girls in their Romanian orphanage. We have no idea what it was. There is some sexual tension between these girls; they obviously had an intense relationship in the orphanage. We have no idea how deep. Once of age, they went in directions as opposite as can be.
Alina (Cristina Flutur) took off on a work visa to Germany for a few years. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) gave up all of her earthly possessions, took some vows, and is now a nun in an austere Orthodox monastery. She calls the priest ‘Papa’ and the head nun ‘Mama’ which Alina notices is just one of the strange rituals Voichita engages in. Alina has come back to Romania to rescue Voichita and taker her back to Germany with her; however, does Voichita think she requires rescuing?
In the main paradox in Beyond the Hills, each girl believes she is trying to save the other one. Alina cannot believe Voichita has changed so much that she actually believes in all of this God and sin nonsense. Now that Alina is at the monastery, Voichita recognizes a soul in need and seeks to introduce Alina to God and bring her peace. Alina is not ready for God; she wants Voichita. Voichita is not ready for Alina; she wants God.
Beyond the Hills will test your patience. It is two and half hours of rugged and real filmmaking. There is no music, no soft lenses, and no levity. Monastery life in the dead of the Romanian winter is no picnic. Plus, Alina is sick and not in an easy to remedy physical way. Voichita’s unwillingness to rekindle whatever it was they used to have has flicked a switch in Alina’s brain. She cannot imagine her future without Voichita.
In this small and cloistered monastery, any unusual activity ripples through the rest of the nuns and to the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) in a matter of seconds. There are no easy to identify good or evil characters here; everyone is a gray area. The priest wants to improve his church and save souls, in what order is anyone’s guess. The hospital will not take Alina, her old foster family will not take her, and the monastery is quickly growing tired of her. Considering it an act of kindness, the priest and Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga) decide on exorcism as the only practical way to help Alina cleanse herself of whatever sins and demons she picked up in Germany.
Inspired by the non-fiction novels of Tatiana Niculescu Bran about a Romanian exorcism gone wrong, writer/director Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days) will not give you any answers. You will draw your own conclusions about who did the right thing, who made poor choices, and if it all could have somehow turned out differently. The lead actresses, Flutur and Stratan, shared the Cannes Film Festival prize for Best Actress. They are mesmerizing; especially Stratan as Voichita, but the film’s pacing is molasses.
To establish that Alina is spiraling downhill and causes daily disruptions in monastery life should not require the unending repetitions of 1) We put Alina on the right track, 2) Alina is left alone, 3) A nun comes screaming out into the open that something is wrong with Alina, and 4) Cue another half hour of discussion until the next inevitable episode. At least Beyond the Hills does not discredit itself by showing some ridiculous Hollywood exorcism rites. The priest and nuns are far more practical and no-nonsense for that.
Beyond the Hills is not anti-religious or anti-secularism. Its only message, if there is one, is that life is full of paradoxes and there are no easy answers. The easiest answer is probably to stay away from this movie and save yourself the pain.