An interesting dynamic about the Romanian New Wave is that not everyone “back home” is happy about its popularity in the West. Some people claim that these films distort and tarnish Romania’s image abroad with “shameful” representations of malignant hospitals, corrupt state officials, young women who have abortions and taciturn loners who buy shotguns and shoot them for seemingly no apparent reason. This disconnect rests in these viewers’ inability to see art as art (not specifically a Romanian problem), which is then stoked by the zeal with which these films have been consumed in the West — the West, still, is not to be trusted, partly by conditioning and partly because, well, maybe the West is not to be trusted.
For example, there’s the efficient commodification of “Romania’s most popular export” into a movement with a catchy name. The directors themselves reject the imposed homogenization and implicit expiration date that comes with the term “Romanian New Wave Cinema.” That said, if “Beyond the Hills” gets an Oscar nomination, even if it doesn’t win, its visibility might create new opportunities for investors to back future Romanian films. But if so, it will also add to the above list of “shameful” representations the callous doctors, the queer, mentally ill (or possibly Devil-possessed) orphan and the botched Christian Orthodox exorcism of Mungiu’s film. Most damning of all for its detractors, “Beyond the Hills,” adapted from a novel by the writer-journalist Tatiana Niculescu Bran, is based on real events that took place in northeastern Romania just seven years ago.
The protagonists of “Beyond the Hills,” Alina and Voichita, grew up together in an orphanage in the poorest region of Romania. Separated when they “matured” out of the home at age 18, Alina sought work in Germany. Voichita found a home and relative solace in a local monastery, and the film begins with Alina’s arrival there to collect her friend, who is not prepared to rekindle the relationship with the same level of intimacy that Alina expects. Or, for that matter, to leave the monastery and work on a cruise ship, as the two had planned.
The film implies but never insists on the homosexual nature of their previous relationship; one understands that what is unrequited here is simply human affection. In any event, this rejection, framed by the religious mores that Voichita has passively adopted, incrementally unhinges Alina’s grip on reality, and she has what is effectively a psychotic break.
There are lots of “shameful” elements in “Beyond the Hills”: sexuality itself; masturbation (“self-abuse,” the mention of which triggers physical violence in Alina); the autism of Alina’s brother (Romania doesn’t officially recognize autism after the age of 18); paranoid schizophrenia (never discussed as a disease, but implied by the specific medications the doctor prescribes to Alina); and the challenge to the presumed benevolence and authority of the Orthodox church, to which more than 86% of the Romanian population claims to belong actively. The young women are, incidentally, in their early 20’s, which means they also represent the many abandoned and neglected children that made headlines in the early 90’s — this, too, has been considered a moment of “shame” for Romania, as if the country were an untrained, and thereby innocent, puppy, whose nose the world was forcing into a stain on the carpet. So to a certain segment of the Romanian populace, the restraining of the former RCI and the films it supported might seem justifiable.
“The RCI never gave money to produce films; it just allocated state funds for promotion,” Mungiu said in a recent interview. “But what people back home don’t understand is that it takes such a long time to convince people that you’re a good partner, to build trust, and that all of that can vanish in one second if you’re not serious.”
For example, the New York office of the RCI spent the last seven years building a network with other institutions to facilitate the promotion of Romanian artists and their work. In keeping up with the growing reputation of Romanian cinema, many of these efforts were made in support of films and filmmakers, including an allocation of $60,000 a year for the last three years for programming in New York, including visits by the filmmakers.
“But because of the political hatred that dominates Romanian society today, these things [trust, networks, relationships] didn’t matter for a second,” Mungiu has said.