At the very beginning of Beyond the Hills (2012, Dupa dealuri), Voichita, played by Cosmina Stratan, struggles to make her way through an onslaught of people as they get off their respective trains and head down the platform. Everyone seems to be going the opposite direction of Voichita and she’s forced to awkwardly cut through the crowd. This is a fitting shot to open this excellent film, which is very much about going in a path different from that of the majority. (A brief scene later in a gas station also gives the impression of this girl being torn by the appeals of moden life.)
Voichita is a young nun living in an ultra-Orthodox Romanian convent: isolated, no electricity, rustic. She has left behind all remnants of her previous life, indeed all remnants of modernity in general. If you didn't know any better, you'd think the scenes at the convent were from a period piece, not a film set in contemporary times. So then, with this opening at the train station (trains always a popular cinematic symbol of modernity), we see a girl who is not going with the crowd; she is a solitary figure in this swarm of hustling and bustling urban life. But she is soon not alone. She's at the station to meet a friend, Alina (Cristina Flutur). The girls grew up together in the same orphanage, and strong hints suggest a lesbian relationship at some point. Alina, who has been living in Germany, is here to visit her friend. With this reemergence of a key part of her past, and with the introduction of this secular individual into her religious existence, the trouble for Voichita and the world she now inhabits starts.
Back at the monastery, Alina, to say the least, has trouble adjusting. She makes advances on Voichita, she acts out, she simply doesn't belong there, and she doesn't understand why Voichita finds the place suitable. Couldn't they just leave together? There's a possible job lined up, working on a boat. All they need are the appropriate papers and they can go away, two friends reunited. Voichita, however, is comfortable where she is. She's not crazy about leaving. Her heart is now with God, not Alina. The nuns and priest try to work with Alina, but their efforts are to no avail. Even if she tries, Alina is there to be with Voichita, nothing more. She can't adapt to their ways and she doesn't really want to. Everyone is patient with her behavior, giving considerable leeway to Voichita, hoping that she will soon realize that her friend doesn't belong. Either that or she herself may have to go. A back and forth of progress and compliance and a reversion back to misbehavior follows, until at one point Alina becomes mentally distraught and potentially dangerous. A stay at the hospital reveals no major physical ailment, so once back at the convent, and after another outburst, the internal presence of the devil is assumed.
It's here that Beyond the Hills gets into the most prominent and troubling of its thematic concerns. Voichita, the nuns, and the priest take drastic steps to “cure” Alina's apparent affliction: she’s tied down, not given food, kept isolated. To them, this is the necessary process when dealing with the bodily inhabitation of satanic evil. Does it, however, the film asks, have a place in modern society? Are they doing what's right, or just what's right to them? Should this kind of treatment be administered when existing, more contemporary psychiatric means are available? It's a drama we've seen played out in real life, where a child deprived of medical attention and instead treated with prayer passes away. That, of course, is the negative side; but some still swear by the power of faith and point to miraculous healing as proof. It goes both ways, and this is what Beyond the Hills explores.
Romanian writer/director Cristian Mungiu is no stranger to controversial topics. His 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (one of the best movies in recent years) was a gritty and powerful tale of a woman's struggle to have an illegal abortion, and the same sort of objective honesty displayed in that film is shown in Beyond the Hills. Mungiu has a striking style whereby the camera is placed in an optimal location to best cover the scene and highlight the emotional resonance, and each set-up is notably intentional in its formal design. We are seeing things from an observational and unobtrusive vantage point, and at the same time everything about each shot is remarkably well composed.
A non-judgmental presentation of the characters also runs through both of these films. In Beyond the Hills, we are simply shown these religious figures and are dropped into their lives. There is no ulterior motive on the part of the filmmaker or the characters. Alina might see Voichita's decision as a foolish one, but we don't necessarily agree. Voichita does, after all, seem content and at peace. And even if one finds their methods archaic and in the end potentially dangerous, the nuns and priest are not "bad guys." In fact, it's quite the opposite. Their intentions are so good that when their tactics fail we feel as sorry for them as we do Alina and Voichita. They did what they thought was best; they're not malicious, stupid, or inconsiderate. The final shot of the film, like the first, perfectly captures this mixed emotion. Without giving too much plot detail away: The shot is on a group of the nuns and the priest seated in the back of a cramped vehicle; the camera steadily moves forward to the driver’s seat and focuses through the windshield on the outside world, a world of cell phones, traffic noise and congestion, road construction, etc. They are clearly out of their element. This is not their world. Are they, then, totally at fault? Similarly, we can identify with both girls: Voichita does seem genuinely happy at the convent and her confusion and conflict is understandable; on the other hand, Alina's desperation to reunite with her friend/lover is terribly heartbreaking, her uncertainty also reasonable.
Beyond the Hills has been extremely well received since its initial showing at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won a well-deserved actress prize for Flutur and Stratan and took home the award for best screenplay (it was also nominated for the Palme d’Or, the festival’s most prestigious prize). It went on to be recognized at numerous other international festivals last year and yet is just now getting its theatrical release in the United States. As such, it could be seen as one of the best films of 2012 and, if going by release date in America, it’s certainly one of the best so far in 2013.