“I’d rather go to hell than have you pray for me,” a doctor tells a whimpering nun in writer-director Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills, Romania’s short-listed entry for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. And although the story focuses on a pair of estranged friends, one an Orthodox nun in a Romanian monastery and the other a lonely barmaid in Germany, the film’s central source of tension is belief versus nonbelief, the latter not very accepted or even understood by members of the one young woman’s isolated religious group.
Mungiu, also the auteur of 2007’s acclaimed abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, based Beyond the Hills’ screenplay on two “nonfiction novels,” yet this film bears similarities to his earlier one—both are centered on two friends in their 20s, one desperately trying to help the other within a world of intolerance. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) grew up in an orphanage together, and it’s implied they became lovers. When it came time to leave the orphanage, Voichita decided to seek refuge in a higher power, joining the monastery in Romania’s remote Moldavia region. Alina, tired of poverty, moved to Germany and started working.
Eventually, though, Alina becomes depressed and starts yearning for Voichita, whom she decides to visit with the goal of them leaving together. But the monastery’s head priest (Valeriu Andriuta) puts his foot down: “The way of Jesus is not like this. You can’t be his servant just from time to time,” he says. Papa, as the nuns call him, tells Voichita to persuade Alina to get right with the Lord, or she’ll never be happy. He forces Alina to confess her sins to him—all of them, lest she commit yet another sin, and therein lies the path to insanity.
Alina becomes instantly defensive with anyone who insists she needs God. Her reluctance seems to baffle them all: “What’s wrong with her?” people ask over and over, and the simple, repeated response is, “She’s troubled,” though that’s really code for “Fuck if I know.” Apparently no one there has ever heard of mental illness. But when Alina makes a suicidal move and becomes violent, they at least have the sense to take her to the hospital, where she’s tied to the bed, prescribed an antipsychotic (“These goddamn illnesses don’t kill you, but they don’t let you live,” the doctor says perceptively) and sent back to the monastery to rest.
Even on medication, Alina is clingy and easily jealous of Voichita, and falls deeper into misery when it becomes apparent Voichita will never renounce her faith to keep her promise that the two would always be together. Stratan and Flutur both make astonishing debuts here. Flutur’s Alina is consistently cold and angry, with alternating fury and deadness in her eyes; Stratan’s Voichita, meanwhile, is meek, obedient, and gentle, and wants nothing more than to help her friend. Even when they’re arguing, Mungiu has them speak softly, and besides the handful of scenes in which Alina and therefore everyone else starts freaking out, the film is quiet overall, with no music and a simple shooting style, one even more basic than Mungiu employed in the elegant 4 Months. Yet these two-and-a-half hours fly by.
The camera does waver toward the end, when Papa and the other nuns decide there is “evil” inside Alina and take what they believe are the only steps to expel it from her. (The hospital isn’t the only time she’s tied down.) But the film is far from The Exorcist, and there are no supernatural elements, only tragically misunderstood ones. Over and over, the worlds of the secular and the religious clash, with neither having much patience for the other. Yet all the actions taken are done in the name of love, proving that even with God in your heart, that can be a dangerous thing.