The plight of the religiously fervent doesn’t carry quite the same weight as the topic of abortion, and director Cristian Mungiu’s follow-up to 2007’s “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” — which chronicled the abortion ban under former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu — has been comparatively neglected, due in part to a perceived shrinkage in vitality. A film about tragedy at a convent, though culled from real life, may not be as sensational as one about the A-word — but at least it allows viewers to more easily notice that Mungiu is one stellar craftsman.
Alina (Cristina Flutur) is a wayward young woman who arrives at a remote convent to reconnect with Voichita (Cosmina Strata), a fellow alum from a grim orphanage. Voichita has since found God. Alina has not, and greatly wishes to coax her friend — although it’s strongly suggested they were once more than that — away from the ascetic life. Voichita stays mousily resilient, one thing leads to another, and soon Alina has turned into a menace that the nuns and its head priest cannot contain.
In sheer terms of what-comes-next watchability, “Beyond the Hills” is magnetic. It steadily and patiently builds to out-of-control horror as characters reply to bad decisions with worse ones. Though easily misread as a takedown of religion and the blinkered ignorance it encourages among the mega-devout, the target of Mungiu’s latest work is really systems in general, which assume authority while retaining, in practice, an all-too-human fallibility. Mungiu never demonizes the convent staff, remaining empathetically distant. Nor does he slap the wrists of the characters as they do foolish things. He understands that a dense system is in place that allows such stupidity to go uncorrected.
It’s a bit hyperbolic to compare Mungiu to the king of cool observation, Otto Preminger. But it’s not out-there to call him a master at the “master shot” style of filmmaking, in which action unfolds in long, often unmoving, takes. Mungiu piles his characters, sometimes one or two, other times upward of a dozen, into claustrophobic cinemascope frames, crowding chaos into tight spaces. It makes for intense viewing, even when it goes too far: for example, when a character is strapped to a makeshift crucifix (although it’s worth noting that this too-symbolic image is never shown in a full shot). Should Mungiu ever think to make a straight-up, proper thriller, look out.
‘Beyond the Hills’
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Stars: Cosmina Strata, Cristina Flutur
(4 out of 5 Globes)