Thursday, March 28, 2013

Lamb to the Slaughter: Beyond the Hills

Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur in Beyond the Hills

The Romanian director Cristian Mungiu is best known for his international success 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, a tight, compelling study of a young woman and the friend who accompanies her on a mission to have an illegal abortion during the Ceausescu era. In America, the issue of abortion is all tied up with religion, but religion doesn’t play any role in Mungiu’s film: while the film presents the abortion itself as a difficult experience made all the more harrowing by the fact that the two friends are breaking the law, the law itselfwhich was put in place because Ceausescu wanted to expand his country’s population is just one more impersonal, bureaucratic dictum limiting their freedom, even over control of their own bodies.

Mungiu’s new film, Beyond the Hills, is about a young girl, Alina (Cristina Flutur), who dies in the course of an “exorcism,” and it finds room to condemn, or at least look askance at, both the religious believers who have taken the girl in, only to destroy her, and the secular world that might have done better for her but could find no place for her. (The doctor who prescribes antipsychotic meds for Alina is sympathetic and intelligenttrying to describe her condition to the uncomprehending nuns at the convent where she lives, he says that she has an illness that “doesn’t kill you, but doesn’t let you live” but has to turn her out of his hospital because he simply doesn’t have enough beds.)

Anamaria Marinca & Laura Vasiliu in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days
Like 4 Months…, Beyond the Hills has a female friendship at its center. Alina has come to the remote convent to visit her childhood friend, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). These two grew up in an orphanage together, and at first, they seem like sisters. Then it turns out that they’ve been lovers, and that Alina would like to renew their sexual relationship. The way Cosima Strathan plays her part, it’s easy to see that Voichita is attracted to the idea even as she explain that, now that she has a religious vocation, she has to be “good.” Beyond the Hills is upsetting in a deeper, more confounding way than 4 Months…, and Voichita’s reaction provides a clue as to why: she seems less like a woman making a principled act of self-denial than a little girl who’s become concerned enough about her figure to decide that she’s outgrown sweets.

As awful as what the heroines of 4 Months… went through, at least they were grown women, college students who knew what they were getting into. Alina is so lonely and confused, and Voichita so stunted, that they seem like little girls. At the isolated convent, all the nuns, whatever their age, come across as frightened children when faced with things they don’t understand. They fall back on their trust in the only man around, the forbidding, glowering priest they all call Father (Valeriu Andriuta). But when the police come around to ask about the girl who died in their care, the only thing this wise man can offer in his defensethe only explanation he seems to have for his behavioris to say that only God doesn’t make mistakes. He manages to say it in a way that implies that for the cops to hold him accountable for his own mistakes would somehow be sacrilegious.

Beyond the Hills is an angry film, even on the rare occasions when a very dark streak of satirical humor peeks through. (Trying to help Alina, the nuns sit her down with a list of 464 possible sins, explaining that she might not be aware of everything she does that counts as sinful, and if she fails to mention all of them in confession, it’ll result in doubling the punishment she’ll eventually have to endure, even for the sins she does confess. Among the sins listed: doubting God’s forgiveness, having too much faith that God will forgive her, having “dark thoughts,” smoking and doing drugs, yelling at and hating on people who are just trying to help, and being angry at “others who do me injustice.”) Thanks to the cinematographer Oleg Mutu, who also shot 4 Months..., it’s a beautiful-looking film, and its spare design and deep, dark colors serve as a rebuke to the religious characters’ limited notion of “austerity.”

It’s well worth seeing, but it’s not the masterpiece that 4 Months… is. There are times when you’re aware that Mungiu is trying to find moral complexity here, and the situation may not have enough moral complexity, or dramatic complexity, to support a film as grandly scaled as this one. (It runs two and a half hours, and it feels pokey and repetitive in places.) As fine as the acting is, Alina isn’t a tragic heroine so much as a helpless child caught in a trap, and as many centuries as it’s been since the Enlightenment, it’s a little late to expect audiences to feel anything as complex as even nuanced contempt for people who lay hands on this terrified, bewildered child and try to starve the devil out of her. Much about the film is a little pat, starting with the way Voichita’s sexual rejection seems to trigger her friend’s mental illness, to the final scene, set inside a police car. It’s cold and rainy, and the driver complains about the dirty windshield, and how it doesn’t seem as if things will ever get better. His partner points out that they can at least clean the windshield, so they can see more clearly. Then a car drives by, splashing the windshield, and the view is all covered in mud again.

Like the 2006 German film Requiem, Beyond the Hills has its roots in a true story of a young girl who died of neglect thanks to the people who misdiagnosed her medical/psychological condition as demonic possession. You might not think this sort of thing happened often enough that there was need of a whole subgenre of mucking movies about it. The real proof of just how badly such movies are needed is that the sleazy Hollywood thriller The Exorcism of Emily Rose, which came out a year before Requiem, was “inspired by” the same case, but presents the priest (Tom Wilkinson) and his defense attorney (Laura Linney) as heroes who, accepting the unknowability of the real truth, see it as noble to torture a sick person and let them die of malnourishment and dehydration rather than risk the chance that they’re Satan’s cat’s-paw. As Leonard Nimoy once put it on The Simpsons, “The following tale is true, by which I mean it’s false. It’s all lies, but they’re entertaining lies. And in the end, isn’t that the truth? The answer is no.”

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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