The Tragic Nun’s Connection

in 65th Cannes Film Festival

by Borislav Andjelic

Beyond The Hills (Dupa dealuri) by Christian Mungiu is a deeply emotional and heart breaking film. Like its two main female protagonists, it is bipolar, both depressive and ecstatic. This is Mungiu’s first feature since 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 saptamani si 2 zile) won the Palme d’Or in 2007 (he also produced the 2009 omnibus The Tales From the Golden Age) which confirmed the creative power of its auteur, and the continuity of the renaissance wave in Romanian cinema.

Mungiu’s script has been inspired by two books (Deadly Confession and The book of the Judges) written by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, who investigated events at Tanacu monastery in Romania. The case concerned a young woman supposedly taken by evil spirits and subjected to an exorcism which leads to her death. The incident took place in 2005, and made headlines in the local and international press at the time.

Mungiu’s major concerns were love, faith and freedom of spirit faced with rigid religious rules, ignorance and the poverty of a society in transition. Mungiu’s film Beyond the Hills centres on the powerful emotional bond between the two young women, within the physical and psychological confines of a rural Orthodox monastery.  It leads naturally to comparisons with his previous film 4 Months…

There is certain continuity in his well-crafted treatment of the deep emotional connections between two young women in both cases. Even continuity of time is present. His Cannes Palme d’Or winner was dealing with the dark side of everyday life in the twilight of Ceausescu’s regime, and now we are confronted with the sacrificial female victims of destructive religious dogma in a new, post-Ceausescu, European Romania.

On the surface, and magnificently photographed by Oleg Mutu, especially considering that the action rarely ventures outside its bleak location of the convent, Beyond the Hills is a stark chronicle of the meagre existence of two young women, on the verge of the nervous breakdown. Alina (Christina Flutur, a real new discovery), an emotionally disturbed young women, comes from Germany, where she has worked, to a remote rural monastery to meet one time friend Voichita (Cosmina  Stratan, impressive role) with whom she grew up and  had emotional relationship during their time together in orphanage. A lot has changed in time between. Voichita has found her place among the nun where despite a not very hospitable ambient with cut off from electricity and running water, she has found her peace of mind. Alina does not understand the new life of her friend, and wants to re-establish old lesbian relationship with Voichita. When denied one thing she wants most in her life, Voichita company, Alina does everything to undermine nun’s influence and tempt Voichita away. Carried away by her defiant will, not to leave without Voichita, when she turned to physical abuse, her nun host’s start to fear that she has been diabolically possessed, subjecting her to starvation and exorcism, which leads to a tragic end.

Mungiu creates his film slowly arousing our curiosity for its emotional and moral crisis, not trying to penetrate his character’s thoughts and maintains throughout a non-judgemental distance from his characters, thus giving each of us a chance to search for our own clues. He suggests that the physical realities of what we see, sense and feel are more than sufficient for our choice. Even the climatic exorcism is not on screen, while one of most humorous and brilliant sequences of the film is when Alina sits peacefully as the nuns read her catalogue of 464 sins compiled by the Orthodox Church.

Lacking film experience, this is the first feature for both excellent leads. Mungiu regular Valeriu Andriuta as the head priest and Dana Tapalaga as the Mother Superior are fine too, morally flawed by rigid rules, but basically well meaning.