Film4: PREMIERE Monday 16 November, 12.50am
Barmaid Alina (Cristina Flutur) arrives at New Hill’s House of God, an under-funded Orthodox monastery in Romania, to take her friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) back with her to Germany. A deeply troubled young woman, Alina is obsessively focused on the novitiate Voichita, the girl she’s loved since their time together at an orphanage. But Voichita is torn between devotion to God and concern for her friend (and former lover, although nothing is explicitly spelled out).
Displaying increasingly erratic behaviour, Alina erupts in acts of violence against the devout community that, with some misgivings, has given her temporary shelter. No good deed goes unpunished in Cristian Mungiu’s hypnotic drama. Like the 2011 Grand Prix winner at Cannes, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, Beyond the Hills unfolds in its own time and space (it was actually filmed and edited in chronological order), observing with a disquieting objectivity a culture that appears both alien and deeply human.
The ministry’s dogma is undercut by fallibility at every turn; rarely have good intentions been so inadequately rewarded (the local bishop won’t consecrate the church until it’s painted). This is the first feature from Mungiu since his second film, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2007. With its long takes and harrowing subject (arranging an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania), it felt like a horror film. In a more muted way, so does Beyond the Hills. What initially seems slightly sinister – the mother superior is ‘Mama’, the priest is ‘Papa’ (‘Father’ when outsiders are present) – is actually rather quaint.
But with the disastrous confluence of good intentions and bad decisions amid grinding poverty and superstitious devotion, it inevitably yet almost imperceptibly develops into a variation on Requiem (a 2006 German film similarly inspired by a real-life exorcism case). Requiem won stage actress Sanda Huller a prize at the Berlin film festival. Fellow screen debutants Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur shared the best actress prize at Cannes.
Stratan is as sweetly conflicted as Audrey Hepburn in The Nun’s Story, Flutur acts like she’s auditioning for Salem. The naturalistic performances are all fine, especially the eternally hopeful but melancholy turns by Dana Tapalaga as ‘Mama’ and Valeriu Andriuţǎ as ‘Papa’. The humour is as understated as the horror: “They said to pray for her,” is the message conveyed from the local hospital. “There’s no ambulance.” The abrupt ending in the nearby town is a stunning visual pun, made even more haunting when followed by the only piece of music in the entire film – Bernhard Flies’ reflective Lullaby plays over the end credits.