Monday, 29 July 2013

Beyond the Hills (2013, Cristian Mungiu)

After the emotionally earth shattering debut of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, Cristian Mungiu tests another relationship of two young women to its very foundations as the spiritual realm and the weight of the world collide in this wholly impressive follow-up.

Two childhood friends are reacquainted as one returns to the Romanian town of which they grew up to seek help (or to aid, this becomes blurred as the drama progresses) from the other who remained there. Alina, returning from Germany after untold hardships finds her old friend Voichita haven taken an oath to a convent and resides with the nuns in the town's surrounding hills. The hills are remotely detached and desolate in the harsh, amplified impact of the elements, though no more desolate and pained than the town itself that surely not dressed up or exaggerated for the film's sake, resembles something from a Tarkovsky film.

It doesn't take long before the Alina's stay at the convent causes 'disruption' in both her and Voichita's friendship and in the larger order of the nun's orderly conduct, run vigorously by its appointed priest. Longing to take Voichita back to Germany with her she struggles to break through the religious barrier of her friend, who now lives by a strictly regimented life devoid even of electricity.

The spiritual doctrine of the convent is so rigid - Alina is constantly asked to remember her sins and when she has an episode it's figured that she has omitted sins from her confession. Alina is never truly integrated or cared for in a warm and tender way, sins committed against her are not taken into account and so she is always unknowable to them. The life of an orphan must be tough, but the nuns only prefigure this on a surface level and refuse to understand such pain. How can this repression help anybody? 

Details of the young women's past emerge without contrivance or melodrama over the film's scoreless 150minutes and details of their upbringing in the local orphanage reveal connections to the paths their lives have taken. With one finding it hard to form roots and another falling into the protection of arguably another institution that mirrors her upbringing for the same reason. At one point Voichita speaks of not being close to anyone in the convent, despite her long stay, through her relationship with God in these hills she has avoided pain of human connection while Alina's suffering surfaces increasingly through the neglect and new found coldness of her friend. As Alina's behaviour becomes  more defiant the rejection of her best friend (and possible former lover) the convent see it upon themselves to exorcise her 'demons' for her and help bring new life, though this causes tragedy and the point where the domain of the spirit and reality's harsh scrutiny clash. 

Beyond the Hills refuses to pass judgement and marks its main strength; Mungiu sets up a situation full of tension and thematic richness and lets it unfold in a stark naturalism aided seamlessly by his repeating of the simplistic one-scene-one-shot approach to directing that served his last film so well, but here even more so.

After two tour de force examples of filmmaking it's safe to say Mungiu has made his mark and shown the level of insight and craft of a filmmaker with triple his experience. What ever he decides to take on next will be met by me with great anticipation as this filmmaker has overwhelmed me with two heart-wrenching and completely human stories, told authentically from a feminine standpoint.

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