At the end of Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 film 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS, Otilia (Annamaria Marinca), after enduring with her friend a series of traumatising events, looks directly into the camera and defies the audience to judge her for the choices she was forced to make.
In BEYOND THE HILLS Mungiu applies this moral ambiguity to a real life event – a misguided exorcism that took place in an Orthodox community in Romania in 2005. As with 4 MONTHS, the film portrays the relationship between two women who suffer a moral and spiritual hardship and are subjected to the consequences of fallible procedures.
For a film in which the presence of evil is a central theme, establishing who exactly is the agent of that evil is the most challenging element. The morality is woven into Mungiu’s aesthetic approach. Originally wanting a ‘blank canvas’ of white – one would suspect for the audience to project its moral judgements onto – Mungiu settles for a desaturated colour palette whose tonal composition is as grey as its moral certainty.
What will fill the void after the next state apparatus or belief system fails?
Mungiu poses questions in BEYOND THE HILLS, particularly to the irrationality of faith. That is, all faith, not merely organised religion: faith in love, faith in medicine, faith in god, and in their ability to heal. It is never clear who is possessed by the greater irrationality – the desperate, lovelorn and headstrong Alina, the apathetic hospital staff or the sinisterly well-meaning followers of the Orthodox community portrayed here.
The crumbling edifices of institutions, a common theme in the Romanian ‘new-wave’, find themselves under scrutiny in the objective lens of BEYOND THE HILLS’ neo-realism. Set pointedly post-communism, questions are asked about what will fill the spiritual void left by Ceaucescu’s sclerotic state? What will fill the void after the next state apparatus or belief system fails?
It is not, however, a film specific to Romania’s current situation. The themes explored are universal of the human condition. Regardless of rhetoric or ideology there is always dogma or an orthodoxy one can plug into to ease survival.
… no definitive answers, no recognisable bad guys, no cosy moralising …
That dogma is even present in the conditions Mungiu imposes on himself – single shots, elliptical storytelling, no music and so on. Those familiar with the cinematic realism of the Romanian ‘New Wave’ will be familiar with its emancipating, non-didactic approach to storytelling. The story is allowed its own life, its own freedom. You must draw your own conclusions. Much like real life, there are no definitive answers, no recognisable bad guys, no cosy moralising.
The ‘New Wave’ films and filmmakers smartly reference each other. Here to be seen is the resigned attitude of a healthcare service exemplified in THE DEATH OF MR LAZARESCU. Also present, the subtle intrusion of sound into difficult moments between characters, as in Radu Muntean’s practically flawless TUESDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS.
BEYOND THE HILLS, like the vast majority of films from the last decade or so in Romania, is exceptionally intelligent, and pregnant with symbolism for those who wish to seek it. But it is also worth reminding ourselves, during its most grotesquely absurd moments, that the events on which they are based are, however loosely, moored in reality and the recent past.