"“The patient viewer is rewarded...”"
Following on from the immense critical response to Cristian Mungiu's Palme d'Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days, the Romanian returns with Beyond the Hills, and although not quite as affecting as his previous effort, remains a more than credible return for the talented director.
Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) grew up together in an orphanage, and as each others only true friend, the once lovers are reunited when the Alina heads back to Romania following a stint in Germany. Although wanting to reignite their special bond, Alina discovers that Voichita – a nun who has since found refuge at a covent - has someone new in her life; God. Although the Priest (Valeriu Andriuta) reluctantly agrees to accommodate Alina, her reckless attitude and protective nature over Voichita proves to be a disturbance, while the latter is left with a conflict of allegiances, struggling to decide between her closest friend and religious beliefs.
Beyond the Hills is a multilayered feature and one that has much depth, as not only do we delve into themes of religion and friendship, but Mungiu also takes a somewhat accusatory look into a crumbling Romanian infrastructure, as both the law enforcement and hospital staff are left to take some of the blame for Alina's deteriorating state of affairs. The story itself is presented with a meditative pace, with a slow-burning opening act. However the final hour is gripping, and as the pace picks up it feels almost as though the patient viewer is being rewarded, while the dramatic finale feels intensified as a result of the pensive opening.
We use the character of Alina as a vessel to peer into this world somewhat unbeknown to us, and by using an outsider to bring us in, it allows for us to pick up on and therefore scrutinise over the absurdities of traditionalist practise, as – much like Alina – we are unsure as to what could be considered a sin, oblivious to what may be offensive to others. Nonetheless, Mungiu does a wonderful job in humanising those within the convent, and despite the fact there is much about their livelihoods you struggle to fathom, the small idiosyncrasies of the women and their personalities are all subtly on show, and we are able to see them for who they are; as individuals, getting a sense for an identity that is mostly lost on each of them. Despite being set in a world far away from our own, we are able to drawn comparisons with the characters as natural human emotion is rife within them all, while the principal theme of being torn between a close friend and a job, if you will, is something that can resonate with many of us.
The two lead performances from Stratan and Flutur are incredible and given the films 150 minute running time, ensure you never once check your watch. Although not usually one for joint winners at award ceremonies, it seems only fitting that the pair were able to share the Best Actress at Cannes Film Festival last year. Meanwhile Andriuta is brilliant, entirely believable as a man who could hold this sort of power over a group of rather vulnerable women, as he's quite intimidating and although calming, his presence is far from graceful.
Beyond the Hills is tough going, as a long, hearty piece that – up until the final 45 minutes – bears little drama, while the ultimate feeling of austerity looms over proceedings. However it's beautifully shot and this absorbing piece of cinema is certainly worth sticking with. A favour that is repaid no less, as this will no doubt stick with you too, long after the film has finished.