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Cristian Mungiu’s first feature-film since the slow-burn Cannes winner 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, visits a similar “women in trouble” theme and replaces the big city with a rural village.
Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) grew up in an orphanage together. They’ve long since parted ways when Alina comes from Germany to visit Voichita at her small, isolated monastery and tries to convince her friend to leave with her. When Voichita refuses Alina doesn’t take her response too lightly.
Mungiu’s film feels as much like a prison break as a glimpse into Orthodox, ultra-devout monasticism. The lone priest (Valeriu Andriuta) is a silent jailer whose motives Alina frequently calls into question. Small wooden, windowed huts and frequent snowstorms make the place look more like Stalag 17 than The Bell’s of St. Mary’s.
And boiling below the surface of what at times takes on the form of an exorcism narrative is a Black Narcissus-like sexual tension. What kind of relationship do Alina and Voichita have? They’re certainly close, but the nature of their friendship is never fully disclosed.
Of course little in Beyond the Hills is fully disclosed. As Alina becomes more and more frustrated with her inability to whisk Voichita over the hills and far away she starts to exhibit outward signs of psychosis. Or so the other nuns say.
Mungiu shows very little of what the priest terms the presence of ‘the evil one,’ on-screen. Instead we’re reliant on the word of the few characters, all of whom demonstrate an unswerving devotion to their priest and faith.
The film climaxes in an intense, perfectly executed extended sequence where priest and followers take their duty as defenders of the faith to inhumane, violent extremes. As the cacophony of dog barks, rooster crows, footsteps and wind rise to an almost unbearable level, Mungiu’s camera and characters are at their most free, whipping, running and jerking their way towards a wrenching, ironic resolution.
The Philadelphia Film Festival celebrates 21 years and runs from October 18 to October 28, 2012. For a complete schedule of films, screening times, and ticket information, please see the Philadelphia Film Society’s official site.