Directed by Cristian Mungiu
Written by Cristian Mungiu
Dreadful anticipation, the kind that most mainstream horror films strive for and fail to achieve, permeates every second of Beyond the Hills, a new film from Romanian writer-director Cristian Mungiu. The film, a patient, uneasy drama about the nature and presence of evil set against the backdrop of a small Romanian monastery and its newest member, grows more and more disturbing as its players go to the extremes to banish out the perceived other from their would-be purified community. Though Beyond the Hills has a too-slow first act, on the whole, the film is quietly devastating.
Cosmina Stratan plays Voichiţa, a young woman ensconced in that monastery since leaving an orphanage where she spent her childhood. As Beyond the Hills opens, she picks up her old friend from the orphanage, Alina (Cristina Flutur), so they can live out their days in thoughtful prayer with the rest of the nuns and the head priest, known, pointedly, as Father. Alina, however, harbors romantic feelings for Voichiţa, and as she’s spurned, she begins to act out in ways that make the faithful assume she has the Devil inside her, and is desperate, immediate need of an exorcism.
The notion of exorcism in film is familiar and loaded—it’s hard not to instantly think of Linda Blair spitting out pea soup at Max von Sydow and Jason Miller when you think of cinematic depictions of possession by demon. The central question at the heart of Beyond the Hills is whether or not Alina is actually possessed; Mungiu deliberately avoids letting us see her speaking in tongues or stepping behind the altar of the monastery. What we see is the aftermath of what one nun sees and reports to the others, so all we get is Alina lashing out at Father, less of a ministerial title and more paternal, or the other nuns. But is she simply lashing out because they won’t let her get what she wants—Voichiţa and a trip far away from them—or because she has a literal form of evil coursing through her veins? And is the evil in the monastery localized within her, or perhaps just human imperfections present in each person?
As a long-form meditation on evil, Beyond the Hills is fascinating, an exercise in foreboding. Mungiu, who wrote and directed the equally tense 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, is extremely capable at creating a toxic environment even in a place where we assume goodness to prevail. At first, there’s enough doubt in the air to make Alina seem as if she’s truly possessed by an otherworldly force. As time passes, and as Father and the nuns are unable to let go of their obsessive drive to rid Alina of the unholy, it’s clear that whatever evil may be present in the monastery is not specific to this newcomer’s mind and body. Father and the nuns—Voichiţa is less fervently devoted, but guilty for never standing up to stop the others—wear blinders to the real world, to the idea that the way they try to exorcise the Devil from Alina, by tying her with chains to what may well be a makeshift cross , for example, may well be worse than anything Alina ever did.
All of the actors among those in the monastery have the hard-bitten look of survivors, people who have been through a moral ringer to achieve high-minded faith and belief. Stratan and Flutur look and feel slightly like interlopers, the latter more of a representation of modern society unable to comprehend the unwavering desire of those in the monastery to see God in every action committed by or to them. In the scenes where the nuns and Father react to Alina, representing the unknowable, unshakable Other, Beyond the Hills calls to mind the Powell-Pressburger classic Black Narcissus, where one of the nunnery is so overcome by her personal urges that she begins to appear and act demonic next to the pious faithful. Though Flutur’s performance isn’t as operatic as that of Kathleen Byron, her unwillingness to be truly converted is equally powerful, as is the response from those around her.
Beyond the Hills is such a tense experience, its final, lingering shot functions as a literal jump scare, and one that can’t be chalked up to some cheat like a stray cat walking by. The suspense in this movie is in wondering if anything will happen, let alone what that could be or when. Will we ever see Alina spin her head around, turn her eyes red, or something else straight out of a more predictable tale of exorcism? Truth, as translated here from controversial non-fiction novels by author Tatiana Niculescu Bran, is often more frightening than fantasy because it’s much harder to know what will happen. Real evil doesn’t come in familiar packages. The villainy in Beyond the Hills is much more difficult to categorize because of personal interpretation, and it’s not restricted to one person. Beyond the Hills is powerful because of its distancing effect; we, not the filmmaker, empathize, question, and judge these characters. The movie, a stark, scary, memorable affair, simply presents them, nothing more.
— Josh Spiegel