Beyond the Hills

There is a shot near the end of Beyond The Hills where the protagonist is looking through a line of nuns and a line of cops arguing with each other. Her journey has led to a point where all she can do is watch, unable to take sides, as her entire world of moral clarity collapses around her. It’s a shot that Cristian Mungiu can construct better than anyone else; his mastery of pacing and ability to elicit brilliant performances from his female leads collide in a fashion that is never less than gripping, full of intelligent dialogue but saving his most meaningful insight for images.

To fully grasp the greatness of this scene, one must look back over Mungiu’s career and the movement to which he belongs. It was a little over five years ago when Cristian Mungiu’s Palme d’Or winning 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (NYFF '07) catapulted Romanian cinema into the international spotlight. The “Romanian New Wave,” as it is now known, began as early as 2001 with Cristi Puiu’s short Stuff and Dough, but with 4 Months, it gained international acclaim and recognition, many calling it a spiritual successor to Italian Neorealism. Indeed, Romanian New Wave films are intensely political dramas usually set during the regime of Nicolae Ceauşescu and, as with their Italian counterparts, enlist the neorealist aesthetic to bring to life the countryman’s story, trapped in a politically and economically unstable time. For Romania, Mungiu’s masterpiece became the most representative film, the Bicycle Thieves of its movement.

4 Months. 3 Weeks and 2 Days

4 Months was far from the first film of the Romanian New Wave; it was not even the first to gain major acclaim, but it encapsulates perfectly what the movement sought to accomplish. It depicts two college girls trying to secure a black-market abortion during Ceauşescu’s communist regime, and its intensely political subtext and harrowing aesthetic helped it become one of the most acclaimed films of the 21st century. The first shot of the film is several minutes long, as the characters try in to vain hide their desperation, but even a setup as powerful as this one cannot fully prepare the viewer for what they are about to watch.

Mungiu relies heavily on long takes in which the characters linger silently or motionlessly within the frame, creating the tension and discomfort that plague his characters, and trusts his actresses to keep the audience engaged. He avoids overtly taking sides on the issues at hand (abortion), preferring to let his plot and mise-en-scene do the work. Everything from fish bowls to the number of flowers characters give to one another works to beautifully encapsulate the nightmare the characters are living, and when the film finally ends, the viewer feels like s/he has shared the horrific experience of Ceauşescu’s reign.

Five years later, Cristian Mungiu is back at the New York Film Festival with his follow-up Beyond The Hills. Like 4 Months before it, Beyond The Hills is heavy on long shots and light on non-diegetic sound; the style of the Romanian New Wave is faithfully kept, as if Mungiu were inviting the audience to discover the films of his contemporaries. But the aesthetics here are used less to politicize a drama than as a way of focusing on humanity and faith.

Beyond the Hills

In Beyond The Hills, Mungiu once again follows two women and, once again, there is a skeptic, Alina, and a believer, Voichiţa. The two grew up in the same orphanage and have now reunited in the monastery where Voichiţa works. But there’s no Ceauşescu, no politics; the film is set in the present, and it is all about social order and custom, faith and love.

The Romanian New Wave has been de-politicizing itself for some time, so it should not be entirely surprising that Mungiu stays relatively clear of it. Cristi Puiu, whose 2005 film The Death of Mr. Lazarescu was the first internationally acclaimed, widely-seen film of the New Wave, crafted a domestic drama, Aurora, as his next work. Likewise, Radu Muntean moved from the overtly political The Paper Will Be Blue to the ambiguous, moral-deadlock of Tuesday, After Christmas, which shuns politics altogether. Mungiu is not the trendsetter with his new film, nor was he with his previous, but with Beyond The Hills he can continue his reign as the representative force of both the intensely political and more apolitical eras of Romanian New Wave.

In some ways, Beyond The Hills is not terribly unlike Tuesday, After Christmas. Like Muntean, Mungiu depicts self-contained, opposing viewpoints, in this case the well-intentioned but perhaps skewed perception of the monastery and the self-reliant, existential uncertainty of Alina. Where Muntean refused to judge his character’s extramarital affair and Mungiu refuses to judge religion (just as he refused to judge abortion in 4 Months). Instead, he makes Beyond The Hills a startlingly provocative psychodrama, one less concerned with politics than it is with how we respond when our beliefs contradict our feelings, or where we turn when nobody seems to want us. If 4 Months was a statement on the havoc wreaked on society by Romanian politics, the present-set Beyond The Hills is the addendum that politics alone cannot fix or destroy a society.

Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas

What makes Mungiu so adept at bringing these views to the world's attention is his ambition. He is far more daring than Muntean, looking outside the domestic drama and questioning the social structure at work behind the scenes, and far less simple than Cătălin Mitulescu. That Alina and Voichiţa love each other would be dramatic enough for many of Mungiu’s contemporaries, but he goes one step-further, simultaneously attacking and sympathizing with the religious institution that torments Alina, guides Voichiţa, and separates the two. Mungiu also depicts a hospital that declines to take responsibility for a woman in need while simultaneously attempting to help her. It touches on the political but, for the most part, bureaucratic and governmental implications are ignored in favor of showing another group of people whose feelings, duties, and beliefs come into conflict. Mungiu spins the same web of hypocrisy that made 4 Months so poignant, and just as that film slowly built to a dinner scene that encapsulated the fundamental themes of the New Wave then—powerlessness and class inequality—Beyond The Hills swells to a haunting long-take that puts on display the moral ambiguity that has taken over the New Wave in the past several years.

If the dinner scene in 4 Months was the quiet release of political tension manifested in class inequality and desperation created by a communist regime, then the nuns and cops scene in Beyond the Hills is the perfect summation of the moral uncertainty so delicately addressed in everything from Puiu’s Aurora to Corneliu Porumboiu’s Police, Adjective (2009) to Muntean’s Tuesday, After Christmas and Florin Şerban’s If I Want To Whistle, I Whistle (2010). Mungiu examines religion where Porumboiu examines drug use, but he adds Muntean’s love, Puiu’s ambition, and Serban’s sympathy to the template. As a result, Beyond The Hills emerges as the definitive example of the Romanian New Wave’s new direction, bringing together as it does the various approaches of the movement’s key figures—from the moral to the personal to the social—slowly reckoning with them until they all intertwine, and then, with a healthy dose of technical mastery, flourishing them until they implode, leaving us with a bleak summation of Romania’s cinematic world. Mungiu not doing it first is nothing new, but then, neither is Mungiu doing it best.

Beyond the Hills screens Sunday, October 7 at 2:30pm and Thursday, October 11 at 3:30pm in the Main Slate of the 50th New York Film Festival.

Forrest Cardamenis is a member of the NYFF Critics Academy. You can follow him on Twitter at @fcardamenis.