Following on his wonderfully brutal Palmes d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Romanian director Christian Mungiu comes back with a deep and sublime new film about the dogmatism of religious fanaticism, but also about love and the bonds that can unite two young women confronted to the rigidity of a patriarchal organisation.
Telling the story of Alina, a young woman who, back from Germany after several years, and determined to take her childhood friend Voichita away with her, finds her friend changed and resolutely committed to the monastery she has in the mean time joined. Beyond the Hills is not only about the oppression that such a rigid institution as the Church can impose upon its faithful servants. It is about the deep love that the two friends share, a commitment that often verges on faith, like when Alina asks Voichita ‘If I let God into my heart, will you start loving me again?’
Like his previous film, Mungiu’s latest is primarily about the relationship that can unite two women confronted with a situation in which they have ultimately but little influence. Marked by hints of ‘forbidden’ sexuality – their lesbian relation is suggested but never shown – Mungiu proposes to question what love is and the kind of dedication it requires.
Like Malick’s recent To the Wonder, Beyond the Hills positions love and faith on a somewhat similar plane of commitment. Will Alina’s almost divine love for Voichita allow the latter to forget the promise she made to God and the Church? Will she find in those intimate embraces the same bliss that she finds in prayer? And will their love be one that can be tolerated by the institution that frames and almost produces it?
Set fifteen years after his previous film, in the last days of the twentieth century, and before Romania joined the Eurozone, the movie could have easily been made into a vivid criticism of religion and religious fanaticism – it is based on the true events of an exorcism that turned awfully bad.
However, Mungiu’s is a look that never judges. As he explains himself in interviews: ‘films should not include the opinion of the author regarding who’s guilty or not. What you need to do as a director is to make sure that you give people all the detail and information they need to form their own opinion’. And like 4 Months, the beauty of Beyond the Hills lies precisely in its reluctance to directly cast any stones. Portraying at times situations that will enrages the most devout of spectator, Mungiu never preaches, but rather leaves its audience decide for itself.
This voluntary removal from any judgment is magnified by Oleg Mutu’s gorgeous cinematography, which replicates the cold, and somewhat distant gaze that rendered his previous film so mesmerizing. With its long shots, its choreographies of bodies evolving within carefully crafted frames, the movie paints the daily life of the monastery with a realism that always suggests the brutal potential, the underlying violence, which infuses such a dogmatic way of life.
A violent but beautiful ode to this forbidden love between two young women, Beyond the Hills is an intense drama about faith, its excesses, and the lives it engulfs within its power. But more than that, it is a profound interrogation of the austerity of Romanian religion, a religion that solely leaves room for one love, between the faithful and its god, and ultimately fails to see, or at least accept, that sublime and divine love that can bind two women to each other.