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by Stuart Klawans, Eric Kohn and Eric D. Snider
March 6, 2013 11:05 AM
1 Comment
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Critical Consensus: Stuart Klawans and Eric Snider Debate 'Beyond the Hills' -- Masterpiece or Borefest?

Eric, I'd like to dig into some of the reservations you have about this movie. In your review, you called it "an interminable one-note punishment" that "moves slowly and repetitively" and yet it seems that you liked "4 Months" a lot more. What was it about "4 Months" that worked so much better for you? And since you called out the new movie's 150 minute running time, when do you feel that such a length is justified in a movie? Would "Beyond the Hills" have worked for you if it ran 90 minutes?

ERIC D. SNIDER: For me, "Beyond the Hills" was the kind of movie that gives "artsy foreign movies" a bad name. The stereotypes that make people wary of art-house fare -- that it's going to be long, slow, ponderous, and painful -- are all apt descriptors. And I say this as someone who frequently enjoys movies that are some combination of long, slow, ponderous, and painful! When such "difficult" movies work, it's because something about the overall experience makes the arduous or unconventional process worthwhile. "Beyond the Hills" gives no such payoff.

Mungiu's other highly acclaimed film, "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days," was slow, like "Beyond the Hills," but with a crucial difference: Though it moved slowly, it felt like it was indeed going somewhere. The new film gives quite the opposite impression, repeating situations of indecision and inertia so frequently that you start to fear the movie won't ever actually arrive at its destination (whatever it may be). As for the running time, I think a movie should be however long it needs to be to tell its story effectively, whether that's 80 minutes or 180. "Beyond the Hills" is too much of a chore to be effective (unless its purpose is to be a chore; more on that in a minute), so I don't know if a 90-minute version would be any "better" than the 150-minute one.

If I read Stuart's eloquent defense of the movie correctly, some of the things he's praising it for are the things that made it excruciating for me. It is a film about inertia. The Orthodox Church (which Mungui apparently haaaaaaaates) never changes; the characters in the movie, even the ones who say they want to change, don't change; everyone is stuck. To some extent, the film's maddening tedium is no doubt intentional (though "maddening tedium" probably isn't the phrase Mungui would use). He wants us to feel the frustration of a never-ending cycle. In that respect, maybe a shorter version wouldn't work. Maybe it's vital that the viewer spend an exhausting amount of time suffocating with the characters.

I can appreciate what Mungiu is going for, even admire it. But the film's repetitive nature wore me out. Could these same points not be made without so much endless repetition? This isn't a movie, it's an endurance challenge.

We've established that this movie takes its time, but haven't really explored much about what happens in it. Eric hinted at Mungiu's apparent disdain for the Orthodox Church, but to me the movie leaves this element somewhat vague. Is it the church itself or this particular church in the filmmaker's crosshairs? In other words, is this movie truly an indictment of an entire institution or specifically about people who work within its constraints to destructive ends? I'm reminded of the recent debate swirling around "Zero Dark Thirty" and various critics' attempts to figure out whether the movie celebrates the use of torture to achieve satisfactory results. "Beyond the Hills" also finds a group of religious ideologues torturing a helpless victim in the alleged service of what they believe to be a commendable goal.

Does Mungiu's narrative come across as entirely anti-Christian, anti-church, anti-religion, etc.? Or is his investigation more nuanced? Eric, you seem enticed by the ideas of the film even though you abhor its execution.

ES: It's been 10 months since I saw the movie, but the impression I had at the time was that it was a screed against the Eastern Orthodox Church, and perhaps against organized religion in general. There was nothing in Mungiu's presentation that made me think he was merely using one specific fictional convent to explore his themes, nothing to suggest it was anything less than a wide indictment of antiquated religion.

"I can appreciate what Mungiu is going for, even admire it. But the film's repetitive nature wore me out."


If Mungiu's purpose is merely to explore indecision, inertia, and superstition in general, and not to accuse religious institutions specifically, then the movie is even less valuable than I originally thought. A wide, scathing attack on the church's damnable old-fashionedness is a theme large and incendiary enough to warrant an exhausting experience like "Beyond the Hills." I don't think it's done well, but I can at least support the idea of it. But if Mungiu only wants to look at the General Foolishness of Mankind, then he's considerably less justified in trying our patience the way he does. Those potatoes are too small.
 
SK: I'm delighted to be asked what exactly happens in "Beyond the Hills," because I cannot recall the repetitions about which Eric complains. What I remember, at a distance of six months, is an escalating series of emotionally charged and well-differentiated moments, which prominently involve the cinematic holy trinity of money, violence and (to quote the great John Lloyd Sullivan) a little sex.

[Editor's note: Spoilers ahead. Readers interested in following the conversation without this information may do by turning to the next page.]

I may have these somewhat out of order, but:

· Voichita applies for a work visa, then lies about it and makes a fuss about unpacking.

· The priest grates on Alina for the first time, carrying on about the sinful gender confusion in the West -- and at this stage she lets him run on.

· Voichita and Alina share intimate memories of their time in the orphanage, and engage in a frustratingly interrupted massage.

· Suffering her first attack, Alina  is brought with great difficulty to the hospital, where she is in effect refused treatment.

· Stuck with Alina, the priest and mother superior urge her to leave, recognizing that she is completely unsuited to the monastery, but she insists on remaining.

· Yielding to Voichita, who wants to keep her around on her own terms, Alina attempts to confess to a checklist of more than one hundred sins. This provides some chuckles for the audience but does Alina no good.

· Now realizing that her relationship with Voichita will not resume as before, Alina goes to her foster parents to collect her money and valuables, discovers she's been robbed and storms back to the monastery, swearing in her fury to give the priest the pittance remaining to her.

· Soon Alina breaks down again, more violently this time, disrupting a church service and smashing the priest's treasured icon. Voichita is now at risk of being forced out of the monastery, having stood as guarantor for Alina.

· The notion of conducting an exorcism is floate -- but the priest strongly resists the proposal. He yields only after Alina tries to harm herself, at which point the mother superior and others insist, entirely plausibly, that Alina has nowhere else to go and no other source of help.

· The exorcism ensues, and is as grueling as the film needs it to be.

· The priest, mother superior and nuns—shaken, heartbroken, desperate—bring Alina back to the hospital, where the same medical authority that previously had sent them away now roundly attacks them for failing to apply for help.

· The police, bored and indifferent, come for the whole crew, and Voichita, who had been so determined to remain in the religious life, climbs into the van dressed in secular clothes.

1 Comment

  • Keith | March 6, 2013 12:54 PMReply

    Having not seen the film yet, I would like to comment on another aspect of this article, the viability of the use of the word "masterpiece" for a film that is just barely out of the first year of it's release, and for a film whose filmmaker is still alive and working. The term "masterpiece", to me, always carries an implication of time, or something standing the test of time to prove it's true worth or "masterpieceness". I wonder if a better term would be "important", so as to recognize a film that may prove itself to be a masterpiece with time, but to declare it as a masterpiece so early in its life would be presumptive.

    Not sure how critics approach the word "important" as opposed to "masterpiece" but as a reader I find myself having a much more favorable reaction to a critic identifying a film or filmmaker as "important" rather than as a "masterpiece". I wonder if it is because it has not been overused (yet), and if I respond better to the open endedness of the word. Important seems to appeal less to my expectations of the film, a film's importance could be (nearly) completely devoid of it's likability (Birth of a Nation) and could be important for a variety of reasons (i.e. box office performance). The word seems more welcoming me into a discussion of the film and trying to identify what makes it "important" or something to be aware of, whereas "masterpiece" is didactic. You either "get it" or you don't.

    I would just like to submit that when a critic is about to use the word "masterpiece" in a review they consider using the word "important" instead, a word I am currently attempting to trademark and copyright.