Since his astonishing breakout film “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” in 2007, Cristian Mungiu has become synonymous with the Romanian New Wave, a film movement dedicated to bleak naturalism, methodical storytelling and clinically harsh honesty in the service of examining the country’s most troubling periods.
Mungiu marshals all those aesthetic and moral forces in “Beyond the Hills,” an austere but subtly textured retelling of a 2005 news story in which a young woman died during an exorcism.
Hewing to Mungiu’s signature style of long, unbroken takes, psycho-emotional intensity and excruciatingly slow pacing, “Beyond the Hills” doesn’t reach quite the exquisitely calibrated dread of “4 Months.” But like that film, it invites the audience into a world that’s simultaneously familiar and alien, existing in a nether region between the ancient and of-the-moment. You may not always enjoy the ride Mungiu takes you on, but there’s never any doubt that he’s the most assured, sensitive and authoritative guide for the journey.
The movie opens as Alina (Cristina Flutur), after living for several years in Germany, arrives in Romania, where she reunites with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). Her best friend from their years in an orphanage, Voichita is now a nun at an isolated Orthodox monastery in the countryside. It soon becomes clear that Alina wants to build a future with Voichita, who has committed herself fully to her sisters and the priest they serve with quiet obedience. Alina lashes out in a series of increasingly desperate episodes that finally lead the community to conclude that she’s possessed.
As with “4 Months,” Mungiu creates a densely layered canvas with “Beyond the Hills,” one that can be appreciated solely for its surface beauty, with its evocatively spare setting and painterly, dimly lit tones of brown, ivory and black, not to mention the great faces he has found to bring the story to life.
As the two women at the center of the narrative, Flutur and Stratan exert a mesmerizing pull on the camera, their highly charged relationship reminiscent of the friendship depicted in the earlier film, in which two girls battled helplessly against the hypocrisies and patriarchal structures arrayed against them. As sympathetic as Mungiu clearly is about Alina and Voichita’s plight, and as closely as he observes every tick and tock of their constantly shifting dynamic, his view is decidedly distant: He doesn’t comment on or give in to the hysteria that builds into a slow, strong burn. Rather he presents it dispassionately, with his own brand of stern, sad compassion.
The filmmaker’s dedication to non-judgment occasionally militates against narrative drive: “Beyond the Hills” begins to sag in its middle sequences, when the repetitive monotony of Alina’s outbursts begins to yield diminishing returns. But he has made a film that’s worth even those wearying sequences, especially when the protagonists leave the monastery and confront a modern post-communist world grappling with multiple legacies, among them the question of religion’s proper place in society.
It’s in the contradictions — between superstition and rationality, scripture and science — that Mungiu’s fascination clearly lies. With his now-signature blend of rigor, lyricism and intimacy, he demands that we be fascinated, too, and rewards our attention with images of rich, haunting power.
Unrated. At Landmark’s Bethesda Row Cinema. In Romanian with English subtitles. Contains adult themes and disturbing content. 150 minutes.