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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 29, 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 13
A high hill to climb - Mungiu's new film is an emotionally devastating test of faith
Arts & Entertainment
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A high hill to climb - Mungiu's new film is an emotionally devastating test of faith

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

BEYOND THE HILLS
Opens March 29


If you thought that Romanian director Cristian Mungiu would follow up his devastating 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days with something as equally emotionally destructive, you'd be correct. His 2012 Cannes Film Festival entry, Beyond the Hills, is not exactly what anyone would ever describe as light entertainment. Inspired by the nonfiction novels of author Tatiana Niculescu Bran, novels I now feel the gigantic urge to seek out and explore for myself, the movie is a brutally unflinching examination of faith and friendship that stripped me to the marrow. Not for the faint of heart, certainly not for anyone looking for a pleasant diversion or a happy night out at the Cineplex, Mungiu's latest is nonetheless a fantastical stunner and, without question, is a movie I'm unlikely ever to forget.

Alina (Cristina Flutur) has returned to the small rural Romanian village of her youth to visit her childhood friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), now living in an isolated Orthodox convent far removed from modern conveniences. Not exactly amused by what she finds there, Alina urges her former best friend - they both grew up as orphans forming a sisterly bond - to return with her to Germany, certain that this life isn't going to do her any good in the long run.

Voichita, however, has embraced her faith, feeling she has discovered the family she never knew as a child living with the nuns, the mother superior (Dana Tapalaga), and their priest (Valeriu Andriuta). But a bizarre series of events makes her start to question whether her feelings and desires have been misplaced, the religious authorities urging her to believe that Alina is sick, possessed, and even in need of an exorcism.

NO 'SOUND OF MUSIC'
As films about faith revolving around female characters are concerned, it goes without saying that Beyond the Hills is never going to be uttered in the same breath as, say, The Song of Bernadette or The Nun's Story. Mungiu looks at Alina's unwavering faith and religious enthusiasm as more of a cross to bear than a symbol of hope or pride, making no bones about picking apart how institutions meant for the good of all can so easily be corrupted and perverted into something uncompromising and vile. While religion is not mocked, using it for misbegotten ill-suited ends certainly is, the director taking these corrupt aspects to task in a way that is unsparing in its naked brutality.

At the same time, he's also crafted a narrative of free will and love that's borderline gorgeous. The way these women feel for one another, how they look at life, what they want, what they yearn for - all of it is so pure and genuine it's hard not to respond on a visceral, deep-rooted interior level. Both Alina and Voichita make decisions they believe are for the good, their undying affinity for each other an unbreakable bond that makes the heartrending tragedy to come all the more overwhelming.

PATIENCE REWARDED
At over 150 minutes in length, Beyond the Hills isn't an easy sit. Mungiu isn't afraid to take his time and does tend to draw some scenes out a bit longer than I felt was necessary. His use of quiet, however, is startling, while the images he and cinematographer Oleg Mutu (The Death of Mr. Lazarescu) paint are potent and vital. The performances of his two leading ladies are also meticulous in their nuances, both Flutur and Stratan rising to the occasion in a way that held me spellbound. While the movie itself may not rise to the same emotionally crippling, instantly classic heights of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, that does not make it any less extraordinary. Mungiu proves once again he's one of the premier cinematic talents of our time - and as such, a filmmaker to keep constant notice of.

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