Directed by: Cristian Mungiu.
Written by: Cristian Mungiu inspired by the book of Tatiana Niculescu Bran.
Starring: Cosmina Stratan (Voichita), Cristina Flutur (Alina), Valeriu Andriuta (Priest), Dana Tapalaga (Mother superior), Catalina Harabagiu (Antonia), Gina Tandura (nun Iustina), Vica Agache (nun Elisabeta), Nora Covali (Nun Pahomia), Dionisie Vitcu (Mr. Valerica), Ionut Ghinea (Ionut), Liliana Mocanu (mother Elena), Doru Ana (Father Nusu), Costache Babii (Doctor Solovastru), Luminita Gheorghiu (Schoolteacher), Alina Berzunteanu (doctor Radu), Teodor Corban (Police inspector), Calin Chirila (Policeman), Cristina Cristian (Camelia), Petronela Grigorescu (doctor Neagu).
Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days won the Palme D’Or in 2007, and was an announcement to the film world what attentive viewers already knew – Romania was experiencing their own New Wave of filmmaking. It took a while for Romanian filmmakers to start really dealing with the fall of Communism and what it meant, but when they did, some of the most interesting films in the world starting being made there.
In some ways, Mungiu’s follow-up to 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Beyond the Hills, shares some similarities with the previous film. Both deal with a close female friendship, whose bonds are tested by an extreme situation. And both feature an older male authority figure that they really have no choice but to follow. And because the film is set in the 2000s, and is about two unwanted children who are now adults, you cannot help but think the protagonists in this film were born to mothers unable to raise them, like what would have been the case in the previous film had one of the women not been able to procure an illegal abortion. But I think Beyond the Hills is an even more complex film than 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. While that film took place in the waning days of Communism – the state was failing, but not quickly enough to help the protagonists – this one is set years later, and shows how Romania is still dealing with the after effects of the Communist years. As well, the male authority figure in Beyond the Hills is not the one dimensional creep the abortionist in the previous film was. He is a priest, who really does try to do the right thing, but fails miserably. Then again, he is the only one in the movie who tries at all.
The film is about Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur). They grew up together in an orphanage, and now in their mid-20s, they have gone their separate ways. Alina has gone to Germany to find employment, but becomes lonely and depressed. Voichita has become a nun and joined a strict Orthodox convent back in Romania. Alina is coming under the guise of a visit to Voichita – but in reality, she is coming to take her away back to Germany to work with her. Voichita is torn between the life she has made for herself – such as it is – and the loyalty she feels to her old friend. It is clear from Alina behavior when they are alone that at one time anyway they were more than just friends. But Voichita is trying to abstain from sin – while Alina has no interest in that. In a very real way, the action in the movie is set into motion because both of these women are trying to save the other one from themselves.
And yet, it isn’t that simple either. In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the main character willfully sacrificed herself for her friend – doing things she didn’t want to do, because the alternative for her friend was going to be much worse. Yet, as much as Voichita and Alina love each other, neither are quite willing to go that far – at least not at first. When Alina shows up at the convent, it is quite clear all she wants is get Voichita and go – even if Voichita is seemingly happy in her new life at the convent. Alina strains our sympathy with her at certain points – mocking Voichita’s love of the priest (who she calls father, trying to fill the void of growing up without a family) by assuming the priest is sleeping with her (although details are not given, it is clear that the girls suffered some sort of sexual abuse as children). Voichita on the other hand has agreed to leave the convent to help Alina in her life in Germany – even if she doesn’t really want to go. Yet, she can never quite bring herself to do so. If she had, maybe what happens in the movie could have been avoided.
Because what happens is that Alina starts becoming aggressive and violent – lashing out verbally, and at least threatening physically, all those at the convent. When she suffers her first mental break, the nuns and the priest take her to the hospital, where she is confined to the psych ward. But the hospital doesn’t want her. Beds are at a premium, and the doctor believes being at the convent will be best for her – where she can get rest, medication and prayer that will “cure” her. What kind of doctor talks like this? Soon Alina is back at the convent, but it’s clear she hasn’t really changed – and the priest wants to convent to be only for true believers. When they try to take Alina back to her adopted family, they don’t much want her either. They already have another girl – taken in to help with the work and make money off of, like Alina once was, and so with nowhere to go, she ends up back at the convent for the last time – and this is when things go horribly wrong.
The movie is based on a real case that Mungiu has altered the facts of to make it even more ambiguous. What happens to Alina during her last trip there truly is horrific – someone there should have known better and stopped it before it went as far as it did. And yet, what other choice did they have? No one else wanted Alina at all. No one else even tried to help her. What happens is horrible, but it was done with the best of intent.
Like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Beyond the Hills is about much more than the seemingly limited story it tells. The previous film was about the absurdity of the Communist system – where things that should be easy became excessively hard if not impossible. Beyond the Hills is about the current system, which isn’t much better, and truly offers no real hope or alternative to children who are essentially abandoned. The doctors cannot help, adoptive families don’t want to help, the police can only do something is something horrific has happened. When you realize the only other alternative to what happened is throwing a mentally unstable woman out onto the streets to defend for herself, you start to understand why things got so far out of control.
Beyond the Hills ends with a shot of a group of children. Depending on your take, this either offers hope for the future – that this generation of children with end up differently than Voichita and Alina, who in their mid-20s already seem hopelessly lost, or reason for fear that the cycle just keeps on going. Somehow, sadly, I think it’s the later.