Fearful Symmetries

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21 April, 2013

WFF '13: Beyond the Hills

Roughly 10 years ago film critics decided that there was such a thing as the Romanian New Wave and Madison even had a Romanian Film Festival for a while. A few years ago it was subsumed by the Wisconsin Film Festival and, as far as I can tell, is now a thing of the past. However the WFF does seem to make it a point to include Romanian films. This year the festival screened Beyond the Hills by Cristian Mungiu whose 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days what shown five or six years ago.

Beyond the Hills allows the audience to watch as Voichita and Alina sift through the remains of their relationship which has withered over time and distance. As the film opens, Voichita is walking along a rail platform looking for someone. She eventually sees Alina on a different platform across a set of tracks and yells out for her to stay there. While Voichita says this because a train is coming, it also summarizes neatly her feelings for her former friend and lover.

The pair grew up together in an orphanage. At first they were friends but, as maturity neared, they also became lovers. Alina eventually left Romania to seek her fortunes in Germany while Voichita stayed behind and joined a small rural convent. Some time has passed and Alina has returned to seek solace in Voichita and also to bring her back to Germany. The problem is that Voichita is happy or at least content with her life. She is desperate to comfort her former lover but realizes that they have grown into different people and that their fates are to be separate.

Alina doesn't take the rejection well. Having lost her faith, she doesn't understand why Vaichita would want to remain cloistered away in a place with no electricity or running water while taking orders from an overbearing priest who preaches that the West is decadent and corrupt. And she reacts like a child. Disbelief at first followed by vain attempts to change Alina's mind. Finally she starts lashing out.

Father Nusu is concerned that Alina's presence is distracting his flock from God and decrees that she must leave. She does but returns to the monastery. It becomes increasingly evident to the audience that Alina has mental health issues and she is bound and gagged so as not to hurt anyone, including herself, and to prevent her from disturbing the routine at the monastery. The Father and his nuns come to believe that she has become possessed by Satan and decides to perform an exorcism. Things don't go well at first but Nusu perseveres. Eventually it seems as if Alina is cured but she suddenly collapses and is DOA at the hospital. As the film nears its end, the secular authorities become involved.

As is the case with the other two Romanian New Wave films I've seen, Beyond the Hills is a slow, tempered affair. André Bazin would have been in hog heaven here as Mungiu and his cinematographer Oleg Mutu opt for long takes, a fair amount of depth of field, and widescreen so that everyone can fit in the frame at the same time obviating the need for shot-reverse shot. It has a natural feeling here as our eyes dart around to catch multiple facial expressions instead of an editor cutting to a close-up to give primacy to one or another. For instance, at the dinner table Father Nusu holds court and denounces the West while extolling the virtue of his religious path. Alina wears an expression of distaste while Voichita looks nervous and the rest of the nuns look on in timid agreement.

Beyond the Hills is a very fluid film. Mungui changes the focus of the story and shifts the audience's sympathies towards characters around. It begins with the relationship between Alina and Voichita at the fore but shifts towards Father Nusu and his followers. At first Alina comes across as an immature, self-centered teenager but we come to feel sorry for her as we realize that she is ill and is bound against her will by Nusu. Father Nusu also transforms. He is pompous and overbearing but his sincerity and concern for Alina eventually come through. And as the film ends, he is pitiful and seemingly broken as he is lectured by the police and taken away to be charged in Alina's death.

I highly suspect there's more than a dash of social commentary here. But being an ignorant American, I can't tell you what it is. I wish I knew more about the role of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Romania, for instance. It takes a while but Nusu does gain some audience sympathy. And the nuns come across as a bunch of lemmings who see Satan everywhere and react with hysterics. On the secular side of things, orphanages come out looking OK but the hospital is portrayed as having given up on its obligations. Does the Romanian medical system have a reputation? And is there a general attitude towards Western Europe?

My ignorance aside, there is a lot to chew on here. The changing nature of friendship, obedience to authority, and religious duty are some of the ideas Mungui throws out for us to consider. What obligations do we have to one another? How should one deal with conflicting obligations? The film doesn't seem eager to give much in the way of definitive answers. The final scene appears to reject clarity. As Nusu and some of the nuns are in the back of an idling police van waiting for the prosecutor to arrive. A vehicle drives by and splashes mud all over the van's window. The movie ends with the wipers struggling to clear the mess.

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|| Palmer, 6:40 PM

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