A real-life exorcism: ‘Beyond the Hills,’ winner of two awards at Cannes

Based on an infamous incident that took place in Romania in 2005, Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (a.k.a. Dupa dealuri) is the patiently observed case history of a tragedy. The movie seeks to know how an act that seems unthinkable in 21st-century Europe could have come to pass. The characters edge toward disaster in incremental steps, and this 150-minute movie might try your patience during the first half. But with his accumulation of details, writer-director Cristian Mungiu knows exactly what he’s doing. As the story escalates into a crisis during the last act, the sense of awful, unstoppable momentum is devastating.

(Mungiu’s previous feature was 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a Palme d’Or winner in 2007 that has become almost universally known as “the Romanian abortion movie.” If you’ve experienced that film, you know what kind of dramatic intensity Mungiu is capable of.)

In a provincial city in eastern Romania, 24-year-old nun Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) goes to pick up her old friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) at the train station. The two women grew up in an orphanage together, and Alina has spent the last few years working in Germany. But from the minute they reunite, it’s clear something has gone terribly wrong. At the sight of Voichita, Alina races across the tracks, barely dodging a train, and breaks down sobbing as she embraces her friend.

L-r: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur. © Copyright IFC Films.

Voichita takes desperately needy Alina back to her Orthodox monastery, a humble compound in the hills high above the unnamed city. The monastery has no electricity or running water; save for the occasional appearance of a cell phone or sputtering automobile, it could be 100 years ago up here. Alina’s sporty Reebok jacket and track pants mark her as the outsider here, like a neon sign declaring that she has been westernized.

But the difference runs deeper than that. Alina is a resolute nonbeliever, and to her dismay Voichita has become devout. Gentle Voichita has found a sense of order and belonging up here, and she has no qualms about obeying the bushy-bearded priest (Valerio Andriuta), whom the nuns address simply as “Father” or even “Papa.”

L-r: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur. © Copyright IFC Films.

That her friend is a willing part of this patriarchy is bewildering to Alina. She has been expecting that Voichita would accompany her back to Germany; Alina has lined up waitressing jobs for them both. But Voichita rebuffs her attempt at resuming their old intimacy. Instead she introduces Alina to the other nuns, as well as Father and the kindly Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga). The mere mention of Germany inspires Father to hold forth on “the West” as a fallen world, with same-sex marriage chief among that godless society’s ills.

It becomes clear that Alina has been not just lonely in Germany, but deeply depressed. She could be suffering a slow-motion nervous breakdown. No one in this environment of all-encompassing piety has any idea of what to do for this stranger, other than to recommend prayer — or that she leave. But what may really be driving Alina crazy is that God has replaced her in Voichita’s heart.

A fit of hysteria lands Alina in the hospital, and the prickly medical professionals there bring to mind Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), a movie that has much in common with Beyond the Hills. Both films follow an agonizing downward trajectory, where innumerable small moments between individuals — moments of exasperation, exhaustion and above all indifference — add up to a much wider cumulative social failure.

The world that Mungiu presents here could be an illustration of the late Margaret Thatcher’s famous statement of principle, “There is no such thing as society. There are only individual men and women, and there are families.” Only here there are no families either, just struggling, disconnected individuals. Voichita and the Mother Superior’s attempt to help Alina is like a stray impulse here, an act of charity that stirs no pity, no echo or response in the social void outside the monastery.

With no other options, Voichita and Mother bring Alina back up to the monastery. Alina is increasingly hostile to the others’ religiosity; the baffled, unworldly nuns come to believe that Alina is possessed. Father makes the fateful decision to perform an exorcism on her, with Voichita’s reluctant consent. Mungiu has been so methodical up to this point, and so painstakingly credible in his staging, that what comes next is horrific yet plausible as we watch it. With the best of intentions, the nuns chain Alina to two wooden planks… that form a cross.

Mungiu is careful never to give us a head-on or even full view of Alina spread out on the makeshift cross. The real-life exorcism that took place in 2005 received a huge amount of press coverage in Romania, so it’s possible that Mungiu wanted to remove any stigma of tabloid sensationalism from his film. Or perhaps he regarded the image as potentially too vulgar, too melodramatic.

The indirect framing here, combined with Mungiu’s technique of never cutting within a scene, is inspired: at this moment of maximum intensity, it never feels like we’re watching something being staged for a feature film, but rather that the camera is documenting a hasty, desperate improvised action on the nuns’ part. It looks like everyone here has lost their minds at once. A more disturbing yet convincing depiction of collective hysteria is hard to imagine.

35mm film, and glorious 2.35:1 widescreen — this is a REAL movie! © Copyright IFC Films.

Throughout Beyond the Hills Mungiu’s masterful blocking of actors is plain to see: even in the humdrum scenes in the monastery’s kitchen, there is always some activity deep in the background or in the margin of the frame for the viewer’s eye to take in. But it’s in the exteriors around the monastery that Mungiu’s gift for moving actors in deep-space compositions really stands out. The imagery is made even more memorable by the snowfall that descends in the final act.

Factor in the inspired use of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and the richness of the 35mm film, and Mungiu’s work here takes on an unexpectedly monumental feel. The subject matter of Beyond the Hills might suggest a claustrophobic, aesthetically impoverished work of social realism, but instead the movie in its own way is every bit as cinematic as the high points of Django Unchained. And no spoilers here, but the bravura final shot is the most memorable moment of cinema I saw in 2012.

You can watch the trailer here:

For info on how to watch Beyond the Hills via On Demand, click here.

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