SEPTEMBER 21, 2013
BEYOND THE HILLS is an austere and stark portrayal of an Orthodox religious community in a desolate rural area of Romania. This tale of love, friendship, faith, and superstition in an isolated monastery is partly based on the news story that shocked Romania in 2005, as Jean Harris’s essay here shows in detail. The case highlighted the problems of the modern Romanian Orthodox Church, struggling to keep pace with its post-communist expansion and to reconcile European modernity with its rural beliefs, customs, and superstitions. The priest in charge of the exorcism exemplified this tension when he declared in an interview, “You can’t take the devil out of people with pills.” Director Cristian Mungiu highlights this disjuncture between medicalized mental illness and centuries-old religious traditions, one of the major preoccupations of this, his third feature film.
Two young women, Alina and Voichita, who grew up together in a local orphanage, are reunited when Alina returns from Germany to take Voichita back with her. Alina has been suffering in Germany without her friend, who remained in Romania and joined a monastery, adopting a life of faith and subservience to the church. When Voichita resists their old intimacy, Alina’s emotional agitation manifests itself in fits of hysteria, which compel the nuns to restrain her physically and take her to a hospital. With the exception of a few scenes in a car or bus, the movie takes place almost entirely in the monastery and the hospital. The name of the area is never identified, and, aside from Alina’s stint in Germany, the world outside the small settlement does not intrude. The monastery is located deep in the countryside, and the inhabitants have to take the bus or drive to the closest town. The monastery is just “beyond the hills” — that is to say, beyond civilization.
While there are no references to politics or to the role of the Orthodox Church in post-communist Romania, the monastery is central to the film’s exploration of mental illness. A Western audience may not be aware, for example, of the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the communist state. From 1947 to 1989, the church survived by pursuing a policy of consent and collaboration with the state; although many individuals within the church were persecuted, the film makes no mention of this. Liberated from communist atheism, Romanian monasticism was revitalized by a significant number of men and women turning to the cloth after 1989, this spiritual effervescence leading to an increase in the number of new monasteries. These provided material and spiritual refuge to those scarred by the violence and poverty of post-communist Romania.
The monastery beyond the hills, with its young community and newly built church, is a case in point. Mungiu lingers on the prosaic reality of monastic life. Here, under the guidance of the priest and the abbess, the nuns and the novices embark on a customary life of obedience, prayer, fasting, and work. As in most monasteries, the private acts of confession, penance, and prayer run in parallel with communal rites: liturgy, communion, the seven lauds. The presence of God is continuously invoked, and since humans can be vulnerable to malefic influences, special provisions are sometimes made. As suggested by the film, exorcism, a practice consisting of a set of prayers attributed to St. Basil the Great (c. 330-379), is performed only in exceptional situations, at the request of the faithful.
The film emphasizes the monotony and inconsequentiality of daily life. The slow building of suspense is aided by a feeling of being incarcerated or at least trapped within the monastery. The ascetic style of the film, eschewing any musical soundtrack and employing handheld cameras and other naturalistic filming techniques, is essential to the creation of this particular religious atmosphere. Shots of the women preparing food or collecting water from the well give prominence to the dirt and grime of the physical labor. There is certainly no idealisation of the religious life.
The trailer for the film runs together several of the most extreme scenes, giving the misleading impression of an intense drama with continually simmering and erupting emotions. It appears to situate the film in the same genre as The Exorcism of Emily Rose (2005, Scott Derrickson) or The White Ribbon (2009, Michael Haneke): a thriller about the dark energies of the religious psyche. In fact, the film moves slowly. Alina’s outbursts punctuate what is, for the most part, a film as restrained as its environment. While it lacks the melodramatic moments found in The Exorcist (1973, William Friedkin), the debates about miracles portrayed in The Third Miracle (1999, Agnieszka Holland), or the Holy Fool discourse in the Russian film Ostrov (The Island)(2006, Pavel Lungin), it does invite viewers to immerse themselves in the life of the faithful.
As the creation of one of the most famous young directors of the Romanian New Wave, Beyond the Hills stands alone in its interest in religion. Countries where Eastern Orthodox Christianity has a significant presence have recently seen an increasing number of films exploring religious issues. This is particularly the case in Russian cinema, with films such as Nikolai Dreiden’s Angel’s Aisle (2008), Aleksandr Proshkin’s The Miracle (2009), and Vladimir Khotinenko’s Priest (2010). Unlike the directors of these films, Mungiu makes it his purpose to side neither with nor against religion. The film resists the easy stereotyping of religious characters. The priest who leads the small groups of nuns could easily have been crafted as an authoritarian ruler, yet he is takes Alina in against his own better judgment and despite his fear of scandal. Where one might expect the repressed sexual energies of the clergy to emerge, they do not; when Alina accuses him of wanting to make love to her, the accusation seems ridiculous and falls flat. Mungiu instead emphasizes the patriarchal and familial structure of its organisation. During dinner scenes, the priest sits at the head of the table, with the nuns appearing as his children, and the Mother Superior as their mother. By accepting this parentage, which the nuns do willingly, they are infantilized, and the erotic dimension is written out of their lives. Indeed, the monastery has become a refuge from the violently sexual world outside, in the case of one nun who has fled her abusive husband. The collective panic and hysteria of the nuns provoked by Alina’s fits is one way in which the suppressed eroticism of their lives bursts forth, and explains in part why Alina is such a disruptive presence.
But even during these moments of dramatic intensity, the film feels detached, always observing rather than judging, and taking pains not to invite judgment. As Mungiu states:
I try to make a different kind of cinema, a different type of film. I do not want the director to be very visible […] I don’t think we need to tell the audience when they should feel moved or not.
At the same time, the film’s inscrutability invites us to question the balance of power between the director and the main character, Voichita, the young woman who has found her home amongst this religious community. Is she the subject or the narrator of the film? The viewer sees only what Voichita sees, but it is difficult to tell whether she is controlling our gaze and what, if anything, she might be concealing. This narrowness of view reflects the carefully enforced bounds of monastic life: the monastery is not a place for intellectual questioning, for opening up vistas of imaginative or spiritual exploration, but of submitting to limits. Ironically, in contrast to the film’s title, Beyond the Hills, the monastery is not a place that allows its inhabitants to go “beyond” its own religious and social dictates. The relentless control of our gaze covertly mimics the impulse of religious institutions to contain human curiosity.
One example of Voichita’s, and perhaps Munigu’s, restraint is that the sexual nature of the relationship between the two women remains veiled. Small hints of their previous intimacy are made, as when Alina asks Voichita if she confessed everything to the priest. Voichita hedges, answering that she does not need to give details, but just to mention the sins she has committed. The vagueness around any explicit sexual revelation may give a clue to the authorial control of the film: if there is no knowledge of any lesbian relationship between the two, it may be because Voichita has erased all memory of it, and thus it is also concealed from the viewer.
The opening scene sets up this tension. We are invited to share Voichita’s perspective before we know whose gaze we are following. The camera jolts along with the rhythm of her walking, showing the crowd she sees emerging from the train before we see her. Similarly, she sees and speaks to Alina before the camera allows the viewer to see her, indicating the way that Voichita holds the viewer at one remove throughout. The result of this stance, however, is that both the film and Voichita seem at times emotionally disengaged. Voichita’s reserve creates an aura of mystery around her character, which veers between an impression of either genuine passivity or repressed desire, but also provokes frustration at her refusal to reveal her private thoughts, if indeed she has any.
The impenetrability of the film comes to the fore in its exploration of Alina’s mental disturbance. The relationship between demonic possession and scientific attitudes to the mind is a contentious issue for both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches. In 1999, the Vatican issued guidelines advising priests to take modern psychiatry into account when asked to perform exorcisms. Exorcism is still a popular ritual demanded of priests in Romania, and the film explores the blurred boundaries between superstition and science in a detached way, as when medical and religious approaches are swapped by the hospital and the monastery: doctors suggest that praying for Alina may help, and the Mother Superior arranges to buy Alina’s drugs. Where there is the potential for an obvious binary between medical science and religion, between the hospital and the monastery, the film resists drawing it.
The hospital and monastery offer different explanations for Alina’s disturbed mind. The priest and Mother Superior plead with the doctors to tell them what is wrong with Alina, seeking a medical diagnosis, but the doctors cannot provide a coherent answer. Does she have a specific medical condition; is she harboring the presence of a demon? Is she reacting to Voichita’s rejection of a life together in Germany, or, belatedly, to the neglect of the orphanage? The film holds these possibilities in abeyance, abjuring from favoring one over another. The hospital’s actions — sedating Alina with drugs and keeping her in an overcrowded ward — are self-consciously insufficient, and the doctors recommend that she stay in the monastery to be looked after by Voichita. They are unable to formulate a coherent or helpful response; they cannot even name her condition. It is in this vacuum that the possibility of demonic possession comes to the fore: with no plausible explanation given by the medical profession for her condition, the inhabitants of the monastery begin to see darker forces at work. In some sense, the film dramatizes the failure of contemporary Romanian psychiatry to create a convincing narrative that can compete with the claims of religion. Neither system, one pumping her with drugs, the other denying her basic freedoms, acknowledges nor engages with Alina’s humanity, nor attempts to understand her story.
Throughout the monastic community’s attempts to exorcise Alina, despite brief outbreaks of hysteric rage, she remains a passive recipient of their attentions. The Mother Superior and Voichita roll their eyes in despair when the priest insists on gaining his permission to exorcise Alina, acknowledging that he has no real understanding of what is happening. Alina’s brother, too, appears to have some kind of mental incapacity, one that also remains unidentified, and as with Alina, there are several possible explanations: His childlike acceptance of events and his passivity could suggest that he has been worn down by the poverty of his life to the point where he no longer wishes to participate in it. He might have some kind of learning disability. There is an oblique possibility that he may even be a kind of holy fool. Yet neither Alina nor her brother suggests any ultimate truth about life or spirituality. In the film, the religious belief that divine truth can be revealed through madness is unfulfilled.
If there is any conclusion offered at all, it may be that of the ultimate inscrutability of the human mind. Though the suffering of poverty and deprivation is undeniable, no simple explanation is provided for the deeply troubled characters in the film. An unfathomableness is the impression left by the film. With its muted colors, white snow, grey skies, desiccated grass, dark, heavy tapestries and furniture, it offers little compassion or optimism about the human condition. Through its suspenseful and nonjudgemental narrative, Beyond the Hills succeeds in going beyond many of the usual cinematic questions about faith and doubt, raising instead a series of thought-provoking ethical, theological, and religious questions.