Editor's note: Critical Consensus is a biweekly feature in which two critics from Indiewire's Criticwire Network discuss new releases with Indiewire’s chief film critic, Eric Kohn. In this installment, Kohn trades e-mails with The Nation film critic Stuart Klawans and Film.com contributor Eric D. Snider about Cristian Mungiu's "Beyond the Hills," which opens in New York and Los Angeles this week ahead of a national roll-out and video-on-demand release.
While not embraced with the quite the same degree of enthusiasm as "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," Cristian Mungiu's follow-up still went over pretty well at the Cannes Film Festival, nabbing both a screenplay prize and acting honors for its two young leads. But even that kind of endorsement doesn't match the level of enthusiasm Stuart has expressed for the film, which can be found in a widely circulated pull quote in marketing materials. You call "Beyond the Hills" a "masterpiece" loaded with "unstoppable momentum."
Naturally, a pull quote doesn't capture the entire conceit of the whole review, but I'd like to delve into the specific qualities that you find so alluring about Mungiu's technique. A lot of people may associated the idea of "unstoppable momentum" with the action or thriller genres, but this slow-burn story about two women and the experiences they endure at a remote monastery isn't so easily categorized. How would you categorize this movie? Given that the movie is long and intentionally slow-going, in what ways is it unstoppable? Finally, let's talk about the "M" word: As someone who was repeatedly quoted in "Zero Dark Thirty" ads after deeming that movie a "masterpiece" in my review, I realize that the word can be an easy crutch. But it's also one that critics use sparingly and carries serious weight for a lot of readers. In your estimation, what sort of criteria define a movie masterpiece?
STUART KLAWANS: It's a form of critical three-card monte, this business of calling a new film a masterpiece. The red card -- the one bearing the carefully thought-out analysis -- is supposed to be moving around on the cardboard box, but somehow, under cover of the M-word distraction, it never flips up. So you are right to call me on my having resorted to the term.
While admitting that my memory is faulty, I can recall only three other instances in the past 25 years of reviewing when I have slapped the masterpiece label on a new film: "Taste of Cherry," "D'Est" and "The Turin Horse." I remark on the relative infrequency of these dodges not to excuse myself for them but to open a question: What do these films have in common with "Beyond the Hills" that would prompt me to throw up my hands and say, in effect, "Listen, just trust me, they’re great."
I might begin by saying these films would be unwatchable for ordinary moviegoers, and so the lonely, embittered critic needs to elevate them above all doubters and detractors -- but that would be too cynical a self-judgment. Although I might be wrongheaded, I remain convinced that open-minded people, even if they are well-socialized and unaccustomed to art-house fare, might nevertheless fall head-first into any of these pictures, despite the patience with which the filmmakers observe the world, the modesty with which they allow information to emerge and the restraint with which they manage the turning points of the plot (if any). I can testify to having seen a thoroughly unprepared civilian become mesmerized by "D'Est," and I fervently believe that other civilians could be similarly enthralled by "Beyond the Hills."
It is a suspense film (if categories are needed), which establishes a mood of impending doom from the first scene. Something is already wrong in the opening shot, which tracks an agitated and apparently lost Alina (Cristina Flutur) along a crowded train platform until she finds and falls into an embrace with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), who seems notably frightened and tearful for a young woman in a nun's habit. From this disquieting and jouncingly mobile beginning, the film proceeds to deepen (rather than heighten) the tension, as the characters gradually work themselves more and more inextricably into a suffocating knot.
Notice that none of these people wants to go forward with anything. Voichita acquires her papers to leave Romania but then denies having got them and insists on unpacking her bag. Alina, who wants to leave the monastery as soon as possible, paradoxically shows her defiance by giving up her worldly goods and remaining. The medical authorities, when asked to treat Alina, demand respect for their expertise and profess concern that she receive the best care, then send her away. The priest, recognizing his own limits and Alina's unsuitability to monastic life, all but begs her to go elsewhere and refuses to conduct an exorcism, but then, with great reluctance, accepts his responsibility to strap her to a cross. It would be a lie to say that these characters have nowhere to go (Germany does seem to be an option) and are offered no options. At every step along the way, they do in fact make choices, while the audience silently screams "no." It would be fair, though, to say that all the people in "Beyond the Hills" push against forces -- emotional, economic, institutional, spiritual -- whose inertia is stronger than the characters' wills, so that the film inexorably progresses from the sense of movement and open landscape of the beginning to the stasis and claustrophobia of the climax.
This is what I mean by "unstoppable momentum": a pressure that is always growing and always feels internal -- to the characters, the situation and Mungiu's direction -- rather than being applied from the outside, as it would be in the ordinary suspense movie. If Mungiu had allowed anything other than internal pressure to drive "Beyond the Hills," the story it tells might have seemed like only a sensational anecdote. (Imagine how the New York Post might fit the entire incident, with jeering condescension, into one paragraph of its "News of the Weird" column.) As it is, though, "Beyond the Hills" has a solidity and integrity that you might associate with sculpture more than film. It feels like something that had to come into the world, and in no other form.
That's what "Beyond the Hills" has in common with "Taste of Cherry," "D'Est" and "The Turin Horse." That's why it might legitimately be called a masterpiece.