Nowhere to turn (Beyond the Hills, 2012)

by Nandia Foteini Vlachou

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Cristian Mungiu’s latest film, Beyond the Hills, is an exploration of the lack of options. It takes place in a monastery, in an unspecified region of the country, but the only thing one needs to know about geography, is that it’s only a place of a crippling poverty. The plot, based on real-life events, revolves around the effort of a girl, Alina, to convince her orphanage friend, Voichita (and possibly former lover, although this is left wide open for speculation), to leave with her for a new life in Germany.

Things go awry, when the beautiful and pliant Voichita who has apparently found God, refuses to leave the monastery (not without inner turmoil) and Alina decides to stay, in the futile hope of swaying her to her cause. I’ve read a couple of reviews that discuss the film mainly as a critique of a retrograde faith that claims tragically, through blind bigotry and ignorance, the life of an innocent. Yet, while watching the film, I found it hard to perceive religion as anything more than the context the movie takes place in.

Mungiu’s detached, almost clinical, directorial style makes it clear that he assumes no critical stance towards the depicted events. His interviews only confirm what his stylistic choices demonstrate throughout the movie. Mungiu tried to approach his story with the objectivity of a reporter (the script is based on Tatiana Niculescu Bran’s books, a journalist who investigated the events) and nowhere does he try to criticize religion as such. On the contrary, the director has stated that during “50 years of Communism and moral decay, religion could have been a solution”.

There is a significant scene early on concerning the importance of religion. A nun, rumored to be about to return to her drunkard and possibly violent husband, when confronted with the possibility rejects it vehemently. She states that if her child is dead, then she belongs in the place she believes is closer to her. The scene is short, but poignant and heart-breaking, and, in it, religion is duly appreciated as solace for the disconsolate and for what it can offer on the spiritual and moral level. Nowhere are the nuns and only priest treated with anything but a kind of deference, although several static shots recording the movement of the black-clad nuns from one side of the frame to the other, strike one as unintentionally comic. Somewhere in my mind, inexplicably, memories of Polanski’s Dance of the Vampires (1967) started to stir.

There are other elements in the movie suggesting that excessive importance of religion, as well as the superstition and ignorance associated with it, are only symptoms of a wider social breakdown. When Alina is taken to the hospital after her first aggressive fit (she’s never properly diagnosed in the film), she is examined by a doctor who stands as the representative of science and logic. This illusion is shattered quickly. Upon releasing his patient to the care of the nuns, the good doctor suggests the reading of Bible passages as a remedy for the troubled brain. Mungiu shows here his complete distrust towards psychiatry – at least towards psychiatry as practiced in Romania. The film records a dilapidated building, an obviously understaffed ward, and numerous psychiatric patients with no hope for improvement; the sequence can be read as an indictment of state of the health care system in the country.

Thus, the film is only incidentally about religion. Time and again, the viewer is reminded of the scarcity of options available for these girls, the hardships they have had to face, the bleak future awaiting them. Several scenes establish this reality, such as the one at the local orphanage, where children linger on, despite having passed the age limit; or the visit to Alina’s former “adoptive parents”, who exploited her by stealing her money, and who probably reaped state benefits for caring for orphaned kids. In one scene, an important element is revealed: when Voichita goes to the police to get her papers in order so she can travel to Germany (trying probably to please Alina), a photographer who took pictures of the children at the orphanage is mentioned. When asked what kind of pictures he took, Voichita lowers her eyes and voice and replies “all sorts”, clearly indicating that this was a case of abuse, and one that did not solely concern her. The authorities are powerless to act and the abuse is treated as an unpleasant fact one has to live with. A friend has observed that the photographer might be the same person as Alina’s German “contact”, the person who helped her find work in Germany and on that cruise ship where she wanted to “escape” with Voichita (revealing this as a further step in a degrading life). The monastery, then, is not so much a choice. It rather embodies the opposite: the complete lack of a viable alternative for the two girls.

That is why the ambiguous last scene of the film constitutes a failure. The policemen driving the car that carries the nuns and priest to the police station are discussing the gruesome murder of a mother by her teenage son, concluding that evil is everywhere. This platitude serves to remove guilt from the actions of the priest and the nuns, which is not inconsistent with the director’s depiction of religion so far, but seems to stray from the point the movie had been trying to make. The most powerful and moving shot (and fitting ending) of this hauntingly beautiful movie will remain the scene where Mungiu frames Voichita in the center of a long, static shot, wearing Alina’s sweater as if invested symbolically by her identity: on the lower part, the black-clad heads of the nuns are visible, demarcating the scene; on the left and right respectively, the police officer interrogating the priest about what happened. The conversation goes on, tedious questions and careful replies describing the events we have already witnessed. Yet the camera does not move at all, allowing the realization of what really transpired to slowly sink in, forcing Voichita (and the viewer alike) to face responsibility, even if it’s nobody’s fault. Which, in the end, amounts to it’s having been everybody’s fault.

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