Romanian director Cristian Mungiu seemingly came out of nowhere in 2007 to snatch the Palme d'Or for his last feature, the tightly constructed abortion drama "4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days," a distinctly powerful work. With so much pressure on the filmmaker from this early stage, Mungiu faced an impossible task, as his less appealing follow-up clearly demonstrates. While technically impressive and occasionally quite provocative, Mungiu's latest feature-length effort, "Beyond the Hills," is at once more ambitious and flawed -- in other words, only 50 percent post-Palme slump.
Another story of close friends hiding secrets from various forms of authority, "Beyond the Hills" takes inspiration from Tatiana Niculescu Bran's novels as it follows former childhood pals Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) under punishingly dour circumstances. Like "4 Months," the new movie presents a scenario involving close friends drawn into a perilous situation with forces beyond their control.
At its start, 25-year-old Alina returns to the countryside after becoming alienated in Germany, paying a visit to the devout Voichita, now committed to a remote nunnery led by its grave-faced priest (Valeriu Andriuta). Once there, Alina alternately rebels against the setting and tries to adapt to it, driving Voichita into a situation where she must choose between allegiances to her friend and the spiritual pressures of her superiors.
Alina's aggression becomes the driving force of this two-and-a-half hour excursion, which finds her challenging the priest's authority, giving into it and lashing out again several times over until a final explosion of violence changes the terms of the showdown. Mungiu's patient long takes capture the proceedings with disquieting unease and occasional flashes of unexpected humor, allowing tension to naturally arise from the priest's increasingly exasperated attempts to suppress Alina's behavior.
Prone to exorcist-like freakout sessions, Alina relentlessly pushes the priest and his small band of nuns to complete exasperation. Their conversations follow loopy pathways weighted with subtext and foreshadowing, establishing the close bond between the woman and hinting at the hidden motives they both possibly harbor. "Without God," Voichita says, "whoever you're with, you're alone." But when the rest of her religious housemates turn against Alina, it's clear she has started to doubt her own words.
However, while sharply written to accentuate its core relationship, "Beyond the Hills" stumbles into a cycle of redundancy over the course of its prolonged running time. There's a full hour of exposition before Alina truly begins to challenge the church, and then the story essentially repeats itself several times before its disquieting climax. Mungiu's method creates the feeling of being submerged in a maze of confrontations and chatter, but the build-up gets so tiring that the concluding scenes come as a relief instead of a payoff.
From a technical standpoint, this may as well be Mungiu's version of "The Tree of Life," a movie that has undergone so many versions that the final one may not even exist. Hack away at "Beyond the Hills" and there's a far more satisfying movie. Individual moments testify to the qualities that make contemporary Romanian cinema so distinctly involving -- the use of a slow-burn, real-time approach that draws you into the small details of a story and then pulls out to absorb the big picture. As with Cristi Puiu's similarly paced "Aurora," the lengthy cycle of events culminates with a prolonged explanation that changes the terms of the drama. But where "Aurora" is fluid, "Beyond the Hills" meanders, losing focus and draining a lot of the emotion out of a story that could use it. Only the last shot makes the journey worthwhile.
Nevertheless, there's much to examine about Mungiu's provocative contrast of religious and secular perspectives. The church's disciplinary measures against Alina is a continually divisive affair, playing in one context as physical abuses and the other as redemption -- an entirely contained duality worthy of many a post-screening debate. And yet for a movie that potentially indicts religious dogma, it suffers from blind faith in the ability to push rigid formalism past its breaking point.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Picked up by IFC Films ahead of its premiere in Cannes competition, "Beyond the Hills" has generated more of a mixed reaction than Mungiu's previous film, but its conversation-worthy concept and the legacy from the director's previous film should help it have a leg up in its first weekend.