Oct 9, 2012

NYFF 2012: Beyond The Hills

My friend Tony christened this movie Brokeback Mountain Meets The Exorcist, which is pretty accurate, if sarcastic. Tony didn't like this powerful film by Cristian Mungiu, but I think it's even better than his 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. At two and a half hours long, I was never less than transfixed by the complex story it tells, loosely based on a true story. Two grown orphans (as you remember, Romania is rife with unwanted children due to the monstrous legacy of Ceaucescu), meet at a train station. Voichita has become a nun in a fringe Russian Orthodox convent, Alina has come back from working in Germany, where she is lonely and miserable, and she wants to take her best friend with her. Voichita and Alina seem to have been a couple in the past and they miss each other terribly. But Voichita is now devoted to God, and under the spell of a priest who runs this place without electricity in contemporary times. She has found a community where she is cared for and where she doesn't have to deal with the horror of Romanian life outside its walls. Meanwhile, Alina, who has been unhappy in a foster home and working abroad, just wants her lover back, which is now impossible since Voichita is now a nun, and shuns her sexually. Alina's plan is that Voichita will come to Germany to work with her on a boat. But Voichita doesn't want to leave. She'd much rather give Alina a home in the convent, hoping she can find peace in God, to which Alina reacts by trying to throw herself down a well. The movie is the tug of war between the strong needs of the two women. They love each other, but Voichita cannot fathom leaving her new calling and Alina is not one to allow religious mumbo jumbo to take root in her soul. All she wants is to be with the woman she loves, and she acts like a bull in a China shop when she can't make it happen. Mungiu draws interesting parallels between the ministrations of psychiatric science (Alina ends in the hospital, which, like everywhere else she's been, rejects her and sends her back to the convent), and the exorcisms of religion, both trying to cure a girl from her own love. Religion has taken her lover from her and she is wary and skeptical of it, since it has never helped her in the least. But since she will do anything to be near Voichita, she tries to fit in the convent, and after Voichita's intercessions on her behalf, is accepted at the convent on condition that she submit to bizarre confessions and penances, according to the orders of the priest, who can recognize trouble when he sees it. Used to a dozen of meek, obedient women who call him Papa, Alina is a threat to the grip he has on the place. In fact, the first words that come out of his mouth when Voichita asks him to let her go to Germany with Alina for a few weeks, are in exact opposition to what Jesus would have done when faced with the same request.
In my view (I had endless arguments with a couple of fellow moviegoers after the movie), he is a calculating bastard and a classic cult leader. My companions felt he was sincere in his belief and was somehow trying to help Alina literally get rid of her demons. Mungiu gives enough clues throughout the movie to present him as a con man. Yet he doesn't make him a moustache twirling villain, but a paternal figure that seems to mete out concern, justice and monolithic authority in equal measure. He has given shelter to desperate women, and he doesn't use them as a harem, but his power lies in the total control of their fates. I love this movie because it is one of the most powerful anti-religious films I've ever seen, and God knows there are not enough of those around.
Regardless of my sympathy towards Mungiu's devastating assessment of the distorsion and debasement of personal faith into superstition, the movie is one of the most impressive directorial feats I've seen in a long time. I have rarely seen a movie that crams so much essential information in each frame, both visually and in the dialogue. Mungiu won the award for best screenplay at Cannes, and deservedly so (in a year against strong contenders like Haneke's Amour and Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love). Context, nuance and ambiguity are handled through casual conversations among secondary characters, and what we learn about the reality of these two young women is harrowing. A couple of times Mungiu delivers mortal blows of reality that take your breath away with just one line of dialogue. He  seamlessly handles several concurrent layers of reality: the love story of the women, their past, present, and possible future, the microcosm of the convent and the pull of Romanian society at large. He works in long, masterfully choreographed single takes, crammed with activity, every scene sharp, clear and essential. The takes are long in that they are not divided by cuts, but they whizz by, bursting with life and energy, even if half the time the energy is heavy and faintly malevolent. This is a much harder way to work than relying on editing cuts, coverage and different angles, but it gives the film a strong sense of place, and an intense, realistic immediacy. His work with the actors is equally brilliant. Cosmina Stratan (Voichita) and Cristina Flutur (Alina), who shared the best acting prize at Cannes, are extraordinary. Opposite in temperament, they don't say much, but each one has tremendous power in her own convictions. Flutur is heartbreaking as a woman wild with love and rage. Stratan, equally powerful in her meek sweetness, undergoes a silent change of heart she communicates with the sheer expression in her face, which after two hours of gentleness, becomes a hard mask of devastating recognition. They are both astounding.
Mungiu portrays a Romania rife with incompetent bureaucracy and appalling social indifference. Whether it's filthy photographers taking indecent shots of teenage orphans (one of the essential pieces of information delivered casually), or foster parents who seem charitable but are moved by self-interest, one can understand that two young orphans sent out into this society need to escape it, each in her own way. This intense, multi-layered film is a parable of Christlike suffering and sacrifice, a scathing indictment of blind faith, and a critical look at a broken society that seems to be flirting with modernity but is still mired in regression and traumatized by years under a depraved communist dictatorship. Beyond The Hills is a harrowing but highly rewarding film.

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