Beyond the Hills
Produced by Canal+
Written and directed by Cristian Mungiu
Distributed by Sundance Selects
Beyond the Hills is Cristian Mungiu’s fictionalized account of the widely reported story of an exorcism performed at a Rumanian Orthodox monastery near Tanacu in 2005. A disturbed young woman who had been living there had become violently hysterical. Taken to a nearby hospital, she was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and advised to return to the monastery. The doctor attending her reasoned that the simple, quiet life there would soothe her mental disturbance. It didn’t. When her hysteria returned, the monastery’s nuns became convinced she was possessed and implored the abbot to perform an exorcism. Beyond the rite itself, this involved tying the woman down on a board and leaving her almost entirely unattended in an unheated room for three days without food and water. The result was death by hunger and dehydration. The secular authorities blamed the priest and the mother superior, and had them prosecuted.
It was a sad case made sadder by how it was reported by some in the media who were intent on depicting it as a reckless return to medievalism after the collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist rule. In an otherwise fairly balanced article in the New York Times, Craig Smith called the exorcism “A Casualty on Romania’s Road Back From Atheism.” He went on to report that, once Ceausescu’s antireligious rule was over, the Orthodox Church had been careless in Her rush to meet the public’s growing demand for a restoration of Christian services and thereby had opened the door to dangerous medieval superstitions. The priest at Tanacu, the 32-year-old former soccer player Daniel Petru Corogeanu, confirmed the point. He hadn’t finished his theological and pastoral studies when he was given his appointment at the monastery. The local bishop regarded his posting as provisional upon his continuing his studies. However, under the press of his new responsibilities and, perhaps, his arrogant conviction in his native abilities, the young man seems not to have returned to his books. In a community desperate to believe and ready to obey whomever had been officially designated to offer spiritual direction, the ground was laid for disaster.
Mungiu’s treatment of the incident is an attempt to account for this disaster. He’s not interested in condemning anyone other than Ceausescu, whose policies created the circumstances that made the horror possible. By first removing the influence of the Church and then impoverishing his nation, Ceausescu created conditions that led parents to leave their families as they sought employment beyond the country’s boundaries. This often led to the abandonment of children to the care of orphanages ill equipped to handle the unprecedented burden on their resources. You may remember the sensational exposés of these institutions 20 years ago. Many children died of neglect. Those children who survived grew up with a host of physical and psychological ailments that left them unable to form normal attachments with others. This was clearly true of the unfortunate young woman in this story.
Mungiu doesn’t address all this directly. He works by symbolic implication, assuming his audience is familiar with the incident. (In what I am about to say here, I have made the same assumption. This means I’ll be giving away the plot, so to speak. If you’re unfamiliar with the original case, you may want to stop reading here or look it up before going on. Smith’s article in the Times is a good place to begin.)
Let’s consider the opening scene, in which two friends who had grown up in an orphanage meet again after years of separation. Two trains have come to a halt at a station. Their passengers have disembarked and are walking toward the camera. The iron hulks stand steaming on the tracks at either side of the frame. Then we notice at the bottom of the screen a young woman trudging determinedly through the advancing commuters who are reluctantly dividing themselves into a double file to allow her through. We watch the woman from behind with growing curiosity. Why is she making such a nuisance of herself by going against the human tide? The scene lasts something shy of two minutes, but, without any montage edits, not even a close-up of, say, a newspaper under the arm of one of the commuters, or a long shot of some luggage waiting on the platform in the middle distance, it seems an eternity. Finally, the young woman, Voichita, emerges from between the commuters. She stands on the gravel bed amid the open tracks. Then her friend, Alina, who has just arrived from Germany, runs toward her. With tears streaming down her face, Alina smiles ecstatically. Voichita’s face, on the other hand, is clouded with misgiving. The women embrace, but to Voichita’s consternation, Alina won’t let her go. After what Voichita clearly thinks an unseemly long hug, she frees herself, saying that others will notice. Notice what? we wonder. Shortly, we will learn that Voichita is a novice nun who lives at the monastery on a nearby hill. She hopes to be allowed to make her final vows one day and is, in consequence, preoccupied with appearances. And so Mungiu sets up his film’s first conflict, the one that will provoke a cascade of others ever more fraught, ending finally in Alina’s death.
The sequence is so eerie that it lingers in the mind. Only after watching the entire film do you begin to recognize Mungiu’s intention. The trains stand for the institutions between which these women live: the Church and the state. Both are large and impassive, and neither has provided them with what they need: familial nurture. After leaving the orphanage, Voichita has attempted to make the monastery her surrogate family; she addresses the abbot as papa, and the mother superior as momma. While they try, these two well-meaning souls cannot replace the parents for whom she longs. Alina’s case is crucially different. She was an infant when her mother died. Later, at ten, she came upon her destitute father after he had hanged himself. She, too, went to the orphanage, where she endured the brutalities of the older children and the unwanted photographic attentions of a local pornographer. An athletic girl, she trained herself in karate to protect both herself and Voichita. As a result, the young women became fast friends and, incidentally, lovers. Given their circumstances, their lesbianism is not so surprising. None of this is dramatized. We learn about it through conversational asides in the present tense of the film.
When we meet the women in the film, each has gone her own way. Voichita has joined the monastery with perhaps something less than a selfless vocation. She gives no sign of being insincere, but as her background comes to light, we can’t help thinking that she finds in the monastery not only spiritual fulfillment but a refuge from the squalid life she has known. Certainly, Alina suspects this. She’s come to take Voichita away so that they can resume their relationship in the secular world. She is adamant on this score, refusing to believe Voichita can be satisfied with a death-in-life religious existence. When Voichita resists her advances, Alina becomes increasingly agitated. If Voichita has placed all her hopes for a normal life in the monastery, Alina has placed hers in Voichita.
As he did in his film about abortion, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, Mungiu decided not to take sides but rather to set up his camera and look at the situation, something he does by rigorously limiting himself to long takes. As he explained in a recent interview, “I wanted long takes because it’s my idea of cinema. . . . I don’t want a process whereby I select what’s important and tell you; I want to stage a situation without including myself as director.” To this end, each scene is a single shot, the camera not moving other than to follow the scene’s principal character, should she or he move within the frame. This choice makes editing all but impossible. Implicative details abound in these scenes, but they’re not forcibly brought to our attention by way of montage and close-ups. In one scene, a bucket of fish is brought into the monastery kitchen to be cleaned. One of the nuns casually observes that, for freshness, it’s better to clean the fish while they’re still alive. Although neither the fish nor the nun is pushed into the foreground with a close-up, it’s impossible to miss the echo of Saint Matthew’s Gospel in which Jesus tells His disciples He will make them fishers of men. The question is, how well does the abbot fish? Not carefully enough when it comes to Alina, whose problem he neither understands nor, apparently, wishes to understand.
For her part, Alina doesn’t want understanding. She wants Voichita. When she asks her friend if she no longer loves her, Voichita replies that she does, but not in the way she had in the past. She loves someone else as well, and that someone else is Jesus. Alina’s distress at Voichita’s reply leads to increasingly violent episodes of hysteria. When she sets fire to her room, the nuns decide it’s the Devil working through her. The only possible remedy is exorcism. The abbot reluctantly agrees, and the film moves inexorably to its harrowing conclusion. All the characters are victims caught in toils prepared for them long before they came on the scene.
After the tumult is over, Mungiu serves up another long take. His camera is positioned in the back seat of a van that’s taking the priest and nuns to the police station for questioning. The van becomes stuck in traffic. In the front seat, two policemen complain of the congestion and the cold, rainy weather. Then one of them tells the other of a case he’s recently worked. A boy was discovered to have knifed his own mother to death. The other cop raises that old, old question: What’s the world coming to? A moment later, a truck speeds by, sending a spray of muddy slush across the van’s windshield, blotting out the view of the road ahead. The camera continues the long take, during which the driver does not activate his wipers. This seems unaccountable until you realize it’s the answer to the cop’s tired question. The world has come, as it so frequently does, to an opaque impasse, frustrating our ability to grasp the significance of immediate events. That’s a long take, indeed.