Beyond the Hills

Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur in Beyond the Hills

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

22 January

 

 

Father Arthur Tooth imprisoned for ritualism, 1877

On this day in 1877, a British minister of the Church of England was sent to prison for the lighting of candles, burning of incense and the wearing of the wrong clothes while saying mass. He was prosecuted under the Public Worship Regulation Act, a peculiar collaboration between Church and State which had laid down in law only three years earlier how God was to be worshipped in public. Tooth had been an extremely popular cleric in his parish of St James Hatcham in New Cross Gate, south east London, and was part of the Oxford Movement, a growing part of the Church of England which saw itself as part of the wider Catholic church and sought to align it closer to the Church of Rome. As a result of Tooth’s imprisonment, he immediately became a celebrity, a rebel with a cause, and the act, which had been controversial to say the least, started on its long run towards oblivion. No clergyman was actually imprisoned for breaking the law laid down in the Act, rather the five who did eventually go to jail went for contempt of court, for refusing to blow out the candles or incense, or correct whatever minor transgression. Indeed Tooth went to jail for refusing to accept the legitimacy of the court at all to adjudicate in matters of faith and worship. It took nearly 30 years before a royal commission in 1906 agreed with him, and accepted that Britain was a country of more than one faith. The law stayed on the statue books until 1963.

 

 

 

Beyond the Hills (2012, dir: Cristian Mungiu)

This harrowing Romanian drama takes a look inside a closed religious community and reports back on what it sees. What it sees is disturbing, not only because it is out of step with the way life is being led out on the streets but because the people concerned don’t see anything untoward going on at all. It’s a true story too. To get to the nub of the problem director Cristian Mungiu focuses on two girls. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is recently returned from a stint in the fleshpots of Germany where she’s been working in a bar, maybe doing a bit of dancing. Alina (Cristina Flutur) is her childhood bosom friend, a girl on the cusp of dedicating her whole life to the monastery where she now lives in quiet purposeful seclusion. We learn from suggestion rather than clear explanation that both girls were brought up as orphans and we see that they have formed a bond that is wild in its intensity, deeper possibly than any religious calling. Which makes it all the more shocking when the monastery authorities start doing things to Voichita which no normal reading of the law would allow – tying her up, depriving her of water, treating her as if she were a witch in medieval times – because she has offended some minor code of the order. The way things turn out is what the film is superficially about. But Mungiu is after some deeper analysis, of the plasticity of the human mind. The answer to the question: how could this have happened? It happened, he argues, because people believe in big ideas. In the case of the people at the monastery, they are motivated by a desire for god’s will to be done on earth, by a feeling that the life of the flesh is essentially evil. A great tragedy plays out right in front of them but, because of their dedication to this larger idea, they don’t see it that way. Is what we are shown an allegory for Communism, perhaps? It could be. Mungiu is of exactly the right age to have been hit by the collapse of the Iron Curtain – 22 in 1990 – when people were asked to swap one mindset for another one almost overnight. If Beyond the Hills lacks the dark humour that distinguished his 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, it is every bit as laser-like in its intense probing intelligence.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Part of a wave of remarkable films from Romania
  • The performances of Flutur and Stratan
  • Cinematographer Oleg Mutu’s careful colour palette
  • Based on a true story

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Beyond the Hills – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Beyond the Hills/Dupa Dealuri

Cristina Flutur (centre) as the novice nun

The Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s most well known film to date, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, followed a pair of student girls in 1980s Bucharest into a grubby hotel where a back-street abortionist first took their money, then demanded further payment, of a sexual kind. After he’d had his way, and then performed his grisly termination, the two girls went down to the hotel restaurant, where the only food on offer was a plate of all-too-reminiscent offal, blood sausage and cold cuts of meat.

Roll end titles, and up came a credit stating that the film was from the series “Tales from the Golden Age”. It’s this sort of gruesome black humour that marked out Mungiu as a man to watch, a director in the Billy Wilder vein who clearly had no truck with the idea that in the old days, which means under the iron regime of Ceausescu in Mungiu’s case, things were fun.

His latest film also follows two young women on a grim journey but this time his focus and intention are quite different.

It’s 2007 and a pair of girls who grew up together in a children’s home are reunited. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is visiting from Germany, where she’s being doing comparatively well paid barwork. She stays with Alina (Cristina Flutur), now a novice nun at a severe monastery where attitudes to life and the world don’t appear to have changed much since medieval times.

If 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days was political satire with a stone face, this is something more ambitious still – an attempt to get into the mindset of people we don’t understand and then to explain their actions from their own perspective.

I say actions because something happens to one of the girls while she’s there, something rather horrible and it keeps on happening, until everything has gone way too far to be justifiable, unless that’s God’s unequivocal intention.

The two rather charming young women have an almost animal attachment to each other which says more about the way they were mistreated as orphan children than any number of flashbacks might have done. Mungiu’s main concern, however, is less on Voichita and Alina than on the devout adherents of the simple strenuous life up on the mountain.

Cristina Flutur and Cosima Stratan
Cristina Flutur and Cosima Stratan



Powell and Pressburger did something almost similar in Black Narcissus in 1947, showing us from inside the nunnery how sexual frustration and its sublimation could bend a wimple way out of shape. Here it’s religious devotion itself that’s under consideration and the old Catholic idea that the life of the flesh isn’t just a pale echo of the life of the spirit but contrary to it. The life carnal belongs to the devil. So a girl who’s been working as a barmaid… maybe a bit of dancing…?

In this attempt to lock into the religious mindset Mungiu is close in tone to the powerful German film Requiem, from 2006, which followed a psychologically frail girl through a series of harrowing exorcisms.

I’m trying to avoid spoilers though there’s more to this film than the plot itself. Eloquently collaged in terms of mood, of slow static-camera shots, it’s a beautifully realised representation of a world few of us will be familiar with. In spite of the fact that it’s 2007, Mungiu’s intention is to explain the rationale of people who, to all intents and purposes, live in a pre-humanist world driven by religiosity. There is no 21st century insistence on civil rights, democracy or personal liberty.

It’s an ambitious thing to try to pull off and Mungiu gets most of the way there. But he has two problems. First, all that filigree description necessary to construct a world that really does need building for us, it’s the enemy of gripping drama. Second, Mungiu kind of cheats when it comes to the actual nub of the film – who did what to whom, and did they realise exactly what they were about? As in The Reader where we were never told just how much of a Nazi Kate Winslet’s character was – that way lies the death of sympathy for our “hero” – Mungiu does something similar here, withholding information that would otherwise allow us to make a decision one way or another, right or wrong, but a decision all the same. Without it, we’re groping.

I’m bending over backwards to stay out of spoiler territory, probably to the point where I’m making things totally confused. What I’m trying to say is that the director, one of the best in Europe today, does eventually grind himself to a halt. But it’s a hell of a halt, and a hell of film. At 30 minutes shorter it would probably be a masterpiece.



Beyond the Hills – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2012