beyond the hills (cristian mungiu, 2012)
Saturday, October 02, 2021
This is the fourth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 4 is called "Romanian New Wave":
"The Romanian New Wave is a genre of realist and often minimalist films made in Romania since the mid-aughts...
Aesthetically, Romanian New Wave films share an austere, realist and often minimalist approach. Furthermore, black humour tends to feature prominently. While several of them are set in the late 1980s, near the end of Nicolae Ceaușescu's totalitarian rule over communist Romania, exploring themes of freedom and resilience, others, however, unfold in modern-day Romania, and delve into the ways the transition to democracy and free-market capitalism has shaped Romanian society after the fall of communism in late 1989."
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Romanian New Wave film.
In 1971, Ken Russell released The Devils. If you've seen any of his films (Tommy), you won't be surprised to know that The Devils was over the top, telling the "true" story of sexual possessions of nuns that result in exorcisms. Russell got the story from a book by Aldous Huxley. Russell includes scenes of torture, forced enemas, self-mutilations, and lots and lots of naked women. The film received an "X" rating in both the U.K. and the U.S., and was banned in several other countries.
That's one way to tell a story.
Cristian Mungiu is a Romanian director who takes his time releasing movies. His first feature came out in 2002, and he's only directed four films since then, one as a co-director. Among those films are 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which is a favorite of mine, and Graduation, about which I wrote, "Mungiu likes to plant his camera in one place for long takes. Often in Graduation, those takes are conversations between two people. There is an intimacy to this approach, although the characters often seem to lack that intimacy between each other." This was similar to 4 Months, where I described Mungiu's tendency to find "a place to put his camera that he thinks is appropriate for a scene," and leave it there for extended periods of time, letting the movie emerge from the stationary camera." Mungiu's film are not over the top ... he is the anti-Ken Russell.
Which makes Beyond the Hills particularly interesting, in that it, too, tells the "true" story of an exorcism. And those scenes are terrifying, but not due to the excesses of the director. We are shocked by those scenes because we see them through the eyes of a young woman whose friend is the victim of the ritual. Beyond the Hills isn't a story of an entire city gone mad, but instead is the story of a woman who doesn't fit properly into the life of a Romanian Orthodox convent. There are sexual undertones ... the two women have been in love ... but as with so much else in Mungiu's work, the undertones rise slowly to the surface. He doesn't need forced enemas to make his points.
Mungiu gives us two outstanding performances by the lead actresses, both of whom were making their film debuts, although they were not amateurs. Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur were co-winners of the Best Actress award at Cannes. Flutur has the showier role, but Stratan is the one who really draws us into the story. I said about Graduation that "Mungiu doesn't judge his characters, but neither does he let them off the hook." This is very true for Beyond the Hills. The priest (Valeriu Andriuta) is not a crazed fundamentalist, and we are led to believe he actually wants to break the woman free of possession. The results are sadly inevitable, despite the priest's intentions.
Three top-level films, with one true classic. Mungiu may take his time releasing movies, but they are worth the wait. #392 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. (Among the other films chosen for the challenge were 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and The Death of Mr. Lazarescu.)