A thick air of mystery hangs over the proceedings of Beyond the Hills, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s highly anticipated follow-up to the excellent 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, a film which earned him the coveted Golden Palm at Cannes back in 2007. The focus this time shifts from the highly oppressive streets of 80s Romania to a present day convent where faith and friendship are harshly tested between two friends. While most of Beyond the Hills registers as another formal wonder in the recent lineup of Romanian New Wave entries, Mungiu’s latest fails to live up to expectation as its thematic repetition overstays its welcome.
The film’s story is actually a fictionalized account of a similar incident that happened in Romania in 2005. It seems as though Mungiu has veered away from proper specifics, suffice it to say that his reworking of the event centers around two young women who were raised in the same orphanage; Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who has found refuge in a partially secluded Romanian convent, and Alina (Cristina Flutur), a lost and alienated outsider who continually fails to convince Voichita to flee with her back to Germany where she resides. Their elongated separation from one another is noted from the onset as Voichita fights through a crowded train station mob to reunite with her friend. This is nothing new for Mungiu, whose 4 Months was centered around the same urgent female bond; though this time, the stakes feel quantifiably lower than the urgency surrounding the abortion politics of 4 Months.
For a while, it’s impossible to predict where Beyond the Hills is heading as it leisurely suggests a multitude of possible destinations. Voichita and Alina’s relation to one another suggests a past romance, one now void of such passion due to the former’s dedication to God and the priest (referred to as “daddy”) who oversees the convent. Voichita’s growing distaste for the stone faced quotidian ongoings of the community are made known, resulting in some sort of heightened emotional breakdown that serves as the narrative’s primary pull and momentum. While much is purposefully left gray regarding Voichita’s emotional state, we’re left to process the implication and morality between the convent and their often brutal, but somehow acceptable treatment towards Voichita’s unreadable actions. The director plays it coy, but there’s an underlying bout of eye-winking taking place amidst the film’s catholic drama template. Mungiu slyly inserts a touch of black comedy as a few of the nuns rush to build a cross they can tie the “evil” Voichita to after one of her many obstinate “non-believing” episodes.
Beyond the Hills thankfully does hold some weight in its formal aesthetic as it retains most of what made 4 Months so immersive; Mungiu employs the same unbroken static long takes to emphasize a pronounced air of objectivity. Even when the frame is cluttered with activity and bodies, Mungiu captures his desired subject with a startling and intense deep focus. While both female performances work fine in contrast with one another (the actresses split the prize for Best Actress at Cannes last year), their central dynamic does not. And this is where Beyond the Hills fails to resonate past its incessant commentary on social control. Though Mungiu wisely avoids a one-sided condemning of religion, the universal desire for affection that is portrayed seems all too cleverly symbolic rather than truly lived in.
The film’s final sequence and shot seems to reveal an all-encompassing dash of bleak humor that brings on an immediate halt to the already laborious and underwhelming discourse. Mungiu believes he’s upped the ante in terms of intended dread, but the final coda unintentionally translates into a moment of ominous symbolic drilling. Running close to 150 minutes, Beyond the Hills’ narrative conceits are far from banal, but it’s nowhere close to the cerebral masterwork it wishes to be.