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Friday, May 3, 2013

Review: Beyond The Hills

Beyond The Hills (2013): Written and directed by Cristian Mungui.  Starring: Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur.  This film is not rated.  Running Time: 155 Minutes.  Based on Deadly Confession and Judges’ Book (non-fiction), by Tatiana Niculescu Bran. 

Rating: 3.5/4 Stars

*note- this review does contain potential spoilers.  Do not read if you want to see the movie cold.* 

           Ever since the massive success of The Exorcist several decades ago, there has been a small but consistent audience for “exorcism-horror” films.  If that has not yet been identified as a horror sub-genre unto itself (which, according to a brief Google/Wikipedia search, does not seem to be the case), it probably should be, because the number of films released since then with “exorcism” somewhere in the title is fast approaching uncountable territory.  The main problem with these movies is that, even when they’re well-made (see The Exorcism and….yeah, that’s about it), they bear near-zero resemblance to actual exorcisms.  Instead of depicting the rituals and prayers, most of these movies opt for easy shock-value- possessed people climbing walls, eating insects, contorting, and vomiting, while an overly-zealous priest stands on the side shouting about God’s Great Glory and nearby farm animals start braying in panic.  Why do so many exorcism films ignore the reality of their subject matter?  Probably because, well, actual exorcisms just aren’t that interesting to watch (plus they are insanely long and incredibly grueling- a truly realistic exorcism film would last about 3 days, and the audience would have to stand on their feet the entire time). 

            I bring this up to provide some context for why I’m so relieved that Beyond The Hills exists.  Not only is the movie about a very real and very tragic exorcism in 21st century Romania, it’s also a movie that looks at, not just the idea of exorcisms, but also homosexuality, the strength of human friendship, the risks of fervent faith mixed with ignorance, and the danger posed by an under-funded health care system.  Not only that, the movie manages to succeed in incorporating all these heavy topics without ever over-simplifying one side or the another, or reducing any of its characters to one-note stereotypes (also with no sweaty girls screaming in tongues).  It stares at both the beauty and the ugliness that can be present in religion without straight-up demonizing either those who adhere to it or those who criticize it (ya see what I did there?).  There are no special effects, pretty much zero music- no dramatic trumpets, no weeping strings- and scenes are shot in either harsh, uncompromising daylight, or impenetrable nighttime dark. 

            Following the true story  it’s based on with incredibly minute detail, Beyond The Hills opens up with two childhood friends (and also, apparently, former lovers) reuniting at the train station.  Voichita, the quieter, dark-haired girl, has joined a small convent of nuns, where following a simple faith with her fellow sisters has allowed her to come to terms with the abuse they both suffered in an orphanage as children.  Alina, the taller, louder, and more aggressive of the two, has seemingly not fared as well.  Aside from a possibly autistic brother, she has no family, no friends, and has spent several years working in Germany, a strange land where she doesn’t fit in.  Thoughts of Voichita and a burning desire to never be separated from her again appear to be Alina’s only driving motivation in life.  As strong as Alina’s desire to be together with Voichita is, however, Voichita is equally as passionate (although not as direct) about her desire to maintain their friendship while getting Alina to accept God and renounce the sinfulness of their former “ways.” 

            We learn that Alina is struggling with something more than PTSD, although what that something is is never made clear (although that may have been a failing of the subtitles I had).  A psychologist watching the film could possibly come up with a diagnosis involving bipolar, schizophrenia, OCD, and/or some other related illnesses, but as far as the nuns are concerned, Alina is suffering for un-repented sins.  To the nuns credit, though, they immediately realize this is someone they are simply not equipped to handle, either materially or spiritually (one of many reasons none of the film’s characters cannot be dismissed as ignorant Bible-thumpers), and the moment that Alina has her first psychotic episode they send her to the hospital for proper treatment.  However, the hospital is apparently only slightly less destitute than the convent, and as soon as Alina is able to walk again they punt her right back to the nuns, even though the head doctor is fully aware they can barely pay for even the most basic of medications. 

            From there, the situation only deteriorates further.  Alina has the option of returning to Germany to continue her work, but her borderline-obsessive love for Voichita keeps her at the convent.  Voichita repeatedly toys with the idea of leaving the convent and going with Alina, but she’s found a genuine community at the convent, and a faith that has brought her real peace of mind.  The nuns and head priest, meanwhile, simply want to continue on with their daily rituals and routines, which Alina’s increasingly violent and offensive outbursts (at one point she knocks a holy relic to the ground after incessantly demanding that the priest show it to her) make more and more impossible. 

            This is the sort of material that could easily be warped by heavy hands into an outright condemnation of either religious or medical authority as “ignorant” or “wrong.”  It would be all too easy to make Alina out to be the poor, hapless victim of a self-righteous clique of religious fanatics let loose, but more often than not it’s her who comes out looking bad, taking every opportunity to attack and accuse the priest of all sorts of perversions, even though there is no evidence whatsoever for her to base such accusations on.  As the sisters bind her for the exorcism ritual, they don’t yell about how they’re about to conquer Satan, or recite prayers- they’re sobbing in fear and shame.  They know how much they’re hurting another human being, but, caught up in a situation none of them have ever dealt with before, they feel they have no other choice.  The movie does not excuse what they do, but neither does it allow for easy judgment of its subjects. 

            Given its sparse setting, sparse sets, relatively simple plot, and complete lack of music (and a lot of silent scenes), this is the sort of movie that can only be pulled off by smart directing and excellent acting, and Hills comes well-equipped with both.  More than one major scene (like when Alina’s brother is told of her death), are carried out without dialogue, with the camera set at a great distance from its subjects, as if reminding us how small and frail the people we’re seeing (and, by extension, us) are, especially when dealing with the great and unknown.  The acting is just as subtle as the camerawork and directing.  Even Alina, the “angry” and “possessed” girl, reveals her character far less through her psychotic and/or demonic fits than through her “normal” scenes, where scattered lines of dialogue suggest far more about her mental state than shouting about “killing the nuns” does.  Alina’s strength as a character is matched beat for beat by Voichita, who never raises her voice, and never shouts, and yet still manages to convey the anguish and uncertainty in her own heart just as effectively as the more outgoing Alina.  Although the quiet presence of the nuns (and the stoic, resigned presence of the priest) fills out the screen well, it’s the relationship between these two girls, and the deep, abiding love that they both clearly have for each other, that carries the film. 

            Like with P.T. Anderson’s The Master , Beyond The Hills is so quiet and downplayed (especially compared to the row of exorcism-horror pieces discussed above) that more than a few people will probably waive away this film as “all pretentious arthouse, no substance,” but I genuinely feel there is a lot of depth and heavy late-night-discussion material to be found in this movie.  Beyond The Hills raises a lot of questions about religious faith, human love, human error, medical science, and the relationships between them all, while offering no clear answers.  There are no villains or antagonists, no Satan horns, just people, making one mistake after the other, ultimately resulting in tragedy and death.  Should the nuns have tied Alina up for days on end?  No.  But then again, Alina had no cause to physically attack them.  Well, shouldn’t Alina have been taking medication and receiving therapy?  Yes, but the nuns are as poor as it gets, already barely able to keep their tiny church standing.  Well, shouldn’t the hospital have kept her there for proper treatment then?  Yes, but lacking plenty of resources themselves, they flat-out refused to, and the nuns were not about to kick her out onto the street.  Should Alina perhaps have kept working in Germany, so that she could support herself?  Perhaps, but her love for Voichita- whether it be misplaced and twisted, or honest and pure- would not let her live in peace without seeing her only true friend again.  Was she truly possessed, cursed by years of sin and living in a country of “false Christianity?”  I do not know.  I personally don’t think so, but like with everything else in the movie (like with most great movies, really), that’s left to you to decide. 

-Noah Franc 

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