It’s difficult to describe Beyond The Hills in traditional terms because it’ll tarnish the experience of watching it. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, and nowhere near as affecting or gut-wrenching as Cristian Mungiu‘s previous film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but it still plays out in a very realistic and authentic way.
The way Mungiu explores what you may unfairly and somewhat patronisingly call “women’s issues” is always inventive. In 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, he looked at abortion and the effect it has on a human being through the prism of bureaucracy as it existed in the Soviet Union, and still does today to a certain extent. Beyond The Hills, on the other hand, attempts to look at female identity and what that entails in modern society by using an example of a so-called true story, of an exorcism of a girl in 2005.
It turns out it’s also difficult to use the terms “true” and “exorcism” with a straight face, but it’s important to do so for Beyond The Hills to work. Voichita and Alina, two girls who met and fell in love in an orphanage under what is hinted at, but not revealed, as being an oppressive sexualised atmosphere, are reunited when Alina comes to stay with Voichita. She has moved to a religious refuge, where she has becomes ensconced in a cultish family, composed of the nuns she finds there, and a mother and father figure. Things rapidly go downhill from there.
Without spoiling too much of the plot, it encompasses sexual frustration, religion, and isolation, in its two and a half hour runtime. Each scene is shot beautifully, giving a sense of beautiful desolation to the whole film. It’s set in the near-present but could be from any era in the last fifty years, the opening scenes especially. Mingiu’s use of locations to reflect the backwards nature of the convent’s ideas and beliefs is a nice touch, as is the extremely thin vein of jet-black humour that runs through the film.
The scene near the well, when Alina is threatening to do something stupid, is full of these moments. Voichita’s deadpan “did you mention self abuse?” while trying to ascertain the problem Alina is having and whether it’s related to her confession, does raise a smile. Only small, but one nonetheless.
That’s not to call it a comedy, though. It’s bleak. Horrifying in places. And all too real.