In Romanian director Christian Mungiu's wrenching drama "Beyond the Hills," everyone does the wrong thing for what they think are the right reasons and the results are both tragic and compelling.
Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) grew up as roommates, best friends and apparently lovers in the orphanage in a small Romanian town. Alina left for Germany, finding work as a barmaid but becoming lonely and depressed. Voichita stayed behind, becoming a nun in the nearby Orthodox monastery.
The action starts when Alina comes back to Romania for a visit. Sharing a cell in the monastery, Voichita avoids the physical contact Alina craves. She also deflects Alina's offer to go together back to Germany, where Alina has lined up for both of them on a luxury riverboat. Voichita wants Alina to stay, to take part in Mass, and to take confession with the monastery's priest (Valeriu Andriuta), whom the nuns call "Papa."
Alina's suspicion of authority boils over into full-fledged paranoia, and she goes wild on Papa and the nuns. They take her to the hospital, where the doctor in charge in one of a string of institutional failures in Alina's case offers some anti-depressants and the suggestion that Alina find a calm place to rest, like the monastery. But Papa and the nuns start to believe demons are afflicting Alina, and Papa suggests using the old ways, in the form of an exorcism, to deal with them.
Mungiu, who made a splash with the 2007 abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," gets so deep into the day-to-day routine of this monastery that the viewer loses perspective. We become conditioned to see the world through the prism of the priest and the nuns, until their actions which ultimately become quite terrifying seem to have a certain undeniable logic behind them. At the same time, Mungiu shows us the horrific life Alina lived, so we understand her point of view as well.
And that's what makes "Beyond the Hills" so fascinating, as it resets the audience's internal clock teaching us the patience of monastic life while it fiddles with our moral compass. There are no out-and-out bad guys in Mungiu's bleak scenario, which makes it all the more unnerving when someone ultimately does something really bad.
'Beyond the Hills'
Two onetime friends reunite in a monastery, with tragic results, in this dark drama from Romania.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas.
When • Opens Friday, April 5.
Rating • Not rated, but probably R for nudity, sexual content, violence and language.
Running time • 152 minutes; in Romanian, with subtitles.