Beyond The Hills

REVIEW BY Willard Manus

Cristian Mungiu, the Romanian director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, returns with a follow-up feature, BEYOND THE HILLS, another gritty and powerful drama. This one takes place in an isolated Orthodox convent in the Moldovian section of Romania, where a handful of nuns lives, prays, and struggles for survival in bleak circumstances--no running water or electricity, a meager diet, little contact with the outside world.

The head of the convent is a black-bearded priest, called Papa by the initiates (and played with impressive dignity by Valeriu Andriuta, an actor who attended film school with Mungiu). As if he didn't have enough trouble trying to keep the impoverished convent alive, Papa must cope with a new problem that presents itself as the story unfolds.

Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), a young, gentle, rather innocent nun, begs the priest to find a place in the convent for her best friend, Alina (Cristina Flur). The two of them grew up together in an orphanage, forming a close bond that is a mixture of love, desperation and obsession. Alina has been living and working in Germany for the past few years, but has now returned to Romania, largely because of mental problems.

It is those problems that trigger a series of explosive conflicts. The tough, streetwise, perhaps schizophrenic Alina has a nervous breakdown that puts her into a local hospital, where she is treated with bureaucratic indifference. Once again, Voichita turns to the apprehensive priest for help. Despite his misgivings, he allows Voichita to bring Alina back to the convent, providing she makes every effort to become a believer, a true nun.

Alina does make an effort--she goes to confession, takes communion--but in the end is overwhelmed by her demons. She has another breakdown, this one wild, psychotic and bloody. Convinced that she has been possessed by the Evil One, the priest and his flock tie her down and perform an exorcism in a desperate, foolhardy attempt to cure her.

BEYOND THE HILLS is based on a "non-fiction novel" by Tatiana Niculescu Bran about an exorcism performed in 2005 at the Tanacu Convent in Romania. Mungiu dramatizes the event in uncompromising, devastating fashion.

BEYOND THE HILLS is Romania's official Oscar entry in the 2012 Academy Awards. The film is 150 minutes long, in Romanian with English subtitles.