Beyond the Hills: The Exorcism of Romania 

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Beyond the Hills
Directed by Cristian Mungiu

The one-line, high-concept premise of Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days—wherein the camera hovers behind a young woman on her day-long odyssey to find a safe abortion in Ceausescu’s Romania—finds no corollary in his follow-up, which fosters ambivalence from scene one: Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) are reunited at a train depot, having grown apart after growing up together in an orphanage. Voichita has dedicated herself to a hillside Orthodox convent; Alina has ostensibly come for a visit, but actually to whisk her old companion away so both can begin new lives together as hostesses on a cruise ship. When they embrace, Alina’s hug lasts longer than Voichita can appreciate—a reminder of the botched codependence that will, in turn, demarcate the limits of their relationship. (The script’s dominating MacGuffin is whatever trauma they experienced together, which Alina tries to reincorporate into their relationship despite her friend’s insistence on staying in the present.)

The convent is lorded over by a stoic young pastor the nuns call “Daddy,” photographed in dark contrast that, factoring in his beard, makes the priest little more than a floating forehead, two beady eyes and a nose. Voichita is kept less by her actual Christianity than by a bruised, pseudo-romantic longing for certainty, but Alina isn’t buying it. Her attempts to join (and eventually, escape) the convent result in a viewing experience that’s part treatise on the clash between traditional and contemporary Romania and part exorcism story. The priest and his chiding female acolytes (uniformly dressed in flowing black robes) give the director ample room to opine or even poke fun; instead he stays rigidly, even obsessively focused on the power dynamics of his frames. What results is a remarkably straightforward work with hot blood beneath its cool, prostrate surface. Every meticulously directed Steadicam shot arrives as if it were its own stage; whatever else, Mungiu wants us to watch harder.

Opens March 8

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