Just in time for Easter, we’ve all been treated to the most beloved of all religious horror movies: the exorcism picture. Well, sort of. Much like The Exorcist, Beyond the Hills is based on a painfully true tale of a possessed young woman. However, the movie doesn’t come from the Hollywood scare factory of twisting necks and projectile vomit. This one comes from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu who proved in his remarkably bleak 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days to favor stark realism over sensationalism. His latest work might not reach the devastating emotional heights of his abortion drama, but it is a deeply disturbing and vital film nonetheless. Calling it horror would be misleading, yet Beyond the Hills does certainly qualify as one of the most disturbing films of the year. Who needs pea soup splatter when you have this level of emotional tragedy?
Mungiu opens the film by reuniting two long lost friends. Alina (Cristina Flutur) arrives by train to meet her childhood confident Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) with plans to take her to Germany to work on a cruise ship. The girls grew up together in an orphanage and while Mungiu tastefully shies away from details, it’s clear that they protected each other from intense trauma and were possibly lovers. However, Alina’s plans for a “happily ever after” are quickly foiled when she learns Voichita is now a nun. Voichita takes her old friend to the convent with her to meet the priest Papa (Valeriu Andriuta) who she hopes will convince her friend to give her life over to God. The convent is strictly orthodox and weary of taking on a new member, yet agrees to house Alina briefly out of charity. Alina attempts to adapt to the new God-lovin’ environment, but simply doesn’t respond despite her friend’s best efforts. With nothing else to live for, Alina begins lashing out and suffering strange attacks in a desperate attempt to retain the only stable relationship she’s ever known. Eventually Papa and his nuns become convinced the girl is possessed and try to exorcize her of the demon. There is no demon though and regardless of the intentions, the exorcism techniques are far from helpful.
Though the subject matter could easily have led to a sensationalistic thriller, sensationalism is not part of Cristian Mungiu’s vocabulary as a filmmaker. No, he works in a very quiet naturalistic manner routed in meaningful silences. He shoots in long takes that allow scenes to play out in the slow pace of life and presents a world of decaying buildings with colors limited to shades of brown and grey. Like 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, the story plays out slowly. The characters feel like genuine human beings fraught with contradictions and even though the filmmaker is building towards intense emotional peaks, he takes his time to get there. The film feels ploddingly slow at first and seems to be building towards little. This is very deliberate, so that once Voichita’s behavior becomes volatile and exorcism enters the story, the audience is so attached to the characters and used to the methodical tone that hysterics and tragedy only hit that much harder. While the film hardly presents a warm view of religion, it’s not a simple condemnation of the church either. Instead, every institution in Mungiu’s Romania is equally cruel and fallible. There’s no silver lining or scapegoat here. The world of Beyond the Hills is one of hopeless tragedy.
All of that makes the movie sound unbearably depressing, but it is still well worth watching. It’s a deeply moving and thoughtful work filled with ideas. Working almost exclusively with non-actors, Mungiu gets a series of remarkable performances from his cast, particularly the two leads. Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan create a deeply felt relationship that goes beyond friendship, despite not having a script that delves much into backstory or emotional speeches. They present a friendship deeper than words, while Flutur’s shocking outbursts and Stratan’s unshakable faith never stretch out of the realm of credible human experience. The film never quite reaches the highs (or lows) of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, which remains Mungiu’s masterpiece. At 2.5 hours, the delicately paced film can become overly tedious in its buildup and by design the payoff isn’t exactly satisfying. However, Beyond The Hills is still a well-crafted work as intellectually intriguing as it is emotionally draining. It’s not something that’s easy to shake off or watch without being moved by the material. You can’t exactly call the film an enjoyable experience, but it isn’t certainly an affecting one. If you feel like leaving the theater in a devastated and dark place over the holiday weekend, nothing will serve up that experience better than Cristian Mungiu’s latest masterful downer.