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Saturday, October 22, 2016

21st Century Essentials: Beyond the Hills (2012)

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur
Country: Romania

It’s no small feat to tell an even-handed account of a religious community that kills a young woman while in the process of trying to perform an exorcism on her, but that’s exactly what Cristian Mungiu does with Beyond the Hills. A villain would not be hard to find in this kind of story, but Mungiu avoids taking the easy road, taking a complex view that underscores how misguided and dangerous strict adherence to a narrow worldview can be and finding a way to have some degree of compassion for everyone involved. Knowing that what unfolds is based on an actual incident that occurred in 2005, and which was fictionalized in the novels “Deadly Confession” and “Judges’ Book” by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, which together form the basis of the film’s screenplay, Beyond the Hills can be a difficult watch, but it’s a deeply engrossing film that sticks with you.

The story centers on the reunion of Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur), who grew up together in an orphanage but whose lives have since taken them in different directions, with Alina having gone to live in Germany and Voichita having become a nun in the orthodox church. Isolated and alone in Germany, and assuming that nothing has changed between them, Alina has returned in the hope of convincing Voichita to go to Germany with her, but for Voichita things are fundamentally different since the last time they saw each other. As part of the process of turning her life over to her religion, she has confessed and repented her sins, which includes a sexual relationship with Alina, and she is determined to live within the bounds of her church from now on and follow the direction of the Priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and the Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga), known to everyone on the commune as “Papa” and “Mama.”

When she realizes that Voichita has renounced their relationship to the Priest, Alina suffers a fit and is taken to the hospital, but is quickly turned away as a result of overcrowding and a staff shortage. She is taken back to the compound to recover, but is only allowed to stay on the condition that she confess her sins and do penance for them. At first Alina seems to agree to these terms, though she persists in trying to convince Voichita to leave with her, but her behavior becomes erratic. Things begin to escalate and there are further incidents that result in the Priest and the nuns coming to the conclusion that Alina is suffering from demonic possession and that the only thing they can do to save her is perform an exorcism.

Mungiu unfolds this story in spare and unforced fashion, not shying away from the torture that Alina is enduring (she’s left tied and chained to a plank in a room without heat or electricity in the middle of winter, deprived of food and water in order to weaken the “demon” inside of her), nor from the fact that the Priest and the nuns are at fault for it, but finding a way to avoid presenting the situation as a black and white matter of religious zealots destroying a life in defense of their beliefs. The first time that Alina falls ill, they take her to a hospital, where they’re advised that she would be better off with them and where they see the hospital staff restraining her so that she doesn’t harm herself or them. It’s the staff at the hospital who, by training and experience, are best equipped to help Alina and understand the mental illness that she clearly has, but they turn her away and into the care of the commune. When she begins exhibiting signs of illness again, the Priest and the nuns are simply doing what they saw done in the hospital when they restrain her and don’t appreciate that they’re treating her with a degree of violence that could only exacerbate her condition. Moreover, because their whole lifestyle is based around the idea of privation, they can see nothing wrong with using the denial of necessities in their attempt to “save” Alina. Their religious beliefs are the only tools they have to deal with the situation and they’re so devout that they can’t see the wrong that they’re doing by employing them.

But ignorance is no excuse when someone ends up dead and what the members of commune have done have fatal results. The film doesn’t attempt to absolve them of that in any way, nor does it suggest that they shouldn’t be punished for it. Its interest is more in trying to understand how something like this could happen, both in terms of the direct circumstances that result in Alina’s death and in terms of the larger social circumstances that contributed to it, ensuring that Alina was in such a vulnerable position in the first place. It understands, through Voichita, how it is that the religion’s rigorous embrace of routine and rules could offer a defined structure that would be appealing to someone whose life has lacked a support system and sense of direction and how it could be a comfort to someone who never felt as though she belonged anywhere before. It also understands, also through Voichita, that the group is so deeply immersed in their practices and so isolated from everything else around them that they’re dangerous to someone like Alina. As the film comes to focus increasingly on Voichita, it becomes not just the story of how a life is destroyed, but how someone’s sense of faith is destroyed as well. There is a striking scene towards the end of the film which places Voichita at once behind the action and at the center of it, the eye is drawn to her in the frame so that we’re watching her as she’s watching everyone else, the true horror of what Alina has endured seeming to sink in as she and the other members of the commune put into words what they’ve done. This is faith being shaken and it’s the quiet, understated way that Mungiu depicts it that makes it so powerful. Mungiu’s arm’s length style can sometimes feel more academic than emotional, but it’s this matter of fact, stripped down aesthetic that makes Beyond the Hills such a haunting piece of work.

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