Beyond the Hills
By Hope Madden
Cristian Mungiu once again drops us into the world of two desperate women coping with the brutal realities of Romanian culture. Beyond the Hills leaves behind the urgent pace of his stellar 2007 output 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, but the outlook for vulnerable women is no less grim.
Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) grew up together in a Romanian orphanage. Now adults, both young women have sought security in different places. Alina moved to Germany to work, and returns for Voichita and a chance for the two to waitress on a vacation boat.
Voichita, however, has found a very different kind of solace as a novice nun.
At its core, Beyond the Hills is a potent story of two people who love, but ask too much of, each other. With clandestine love as his compelling core, Mungiu goes on to paint a picture of all that works against the weak as they seek happiness.
What goes unsaid holds more power than anything else in the film, and Mungiu vividly depicts the danger of their love in this community. More than an indictment of religion – although it certainly is that – Mungiu’s film begs you to look deeper. Without fanfare or editorialization, we witness the damage done by childhood abandonment, lifelong institutionalization, an inadequate healthcare system, and the culminating effect of a dangerous desperation to be loved, accepted and safe.
The leads balance each other beautifully. Flutur animates a suspicious, stubborn and alarmingly authentic mix of naïveté and world-wearied cynicism while Stratan’s soulful quiet betrays one more willing to submit for the sake of survival. Their love is never less than genuine, and Mungiu’s canvas of brutal primitivism versus soulless progress would have fallen part without that.
His eye remains impartial, misguided as the behavior onscreen may be. It allows the audience to delay judgment, but also makes it a struggle to find connections with characters. The resolutely unhurried pace also allows the story to open up in its own time, while it tests audience patience. But his tale is worth the effort.
Mungiu has a tragic love story to share, tragic because it finds itself inside a culture in which progress and superstition embrace, perhaps because neither serves the population particularly well on its own.