Cristian Mungiu's "Beyond The-Hills"

That's a minimum of a dozen fully developed dramatic episodes. Each builds on the previous events. None recapitulates any previous action. What's more, Mungiu varies the settings for these episodes, not only establishing several different indoor and outdoor spaces at the monastery but also taking you to a number of public, private and official locations in and around town. He doesn't lock you in until the climax, when Alina too is locked in. So where are the repetitions?

You could object, I suppose, that the monastery's dog barks too often, and too often gets off his tether. But the barking is nicely calibrated to thicken the atmosphere of nervous tension, and besides, when Alina is finally tied up, Mungiu wants you to know exactly where the chains came from. Or maybe you could object to the priest's vacillation about allowing Alina to remain at the monastery. You could say that the character is annoyingly irresolute -- or you could admit that Mungiu does not in fact intend to deliver a screed against the Orthodox Church.

"You could object, I suppose, that the monastery's dog barks too often, and too often gets off his tether."

Whatever you might think of the priest's anti-Western sentiments and belief in the efficacy of supernatural powers -- I'm against them, myself -- you have to admit that he neither wants to impose a monastic life on Alina nor to subject her to an extreme ritual. Just the opposite. He wants her to get medical care, he does his best to persuade her to return to a secular life and he undertakes the exorcism with great reluctance. He is a limited, prejudiced man -- as am I, no doubt -- but he always has his reasons, like everybody else in the film, and he is anything but a monster. As for his being an exemplar of the Orthodox Church, the film takes pains to establish that the hierarchy views his monastery as a freelance initiative and has not granted it approval, on the flimsy excuse that the sanctuary has not been properly painted.

Let's admit, though, that the priest's set-up represents an entrenched, strikingly backward strain of religiosity in Romania. The question is whether a local, quasi-official institutionalization of this religiosity is any worse than the local, fully official institutions of the medical profession, the child-care and educational system, the emigration and labor authorities or the police. And while we're assessing the culpabilities, we might as well throw in the behavior of private citizens, such as the foster parents who have taken such good care of Alina, and of the operators of those boat cruises in Germany, where the full range of a young waitress's job description is left to the imagination.

Those are the prerequisites for a full measure of pity and terror, experienced by fully credible characters within a fully realized society.

ES: Should I stay or go? Should YOU stay or go? I want you here, I do not want you here. Back and forth. In and out. About to leave, change your mind. Go away, come back again. Resolve to do one thing, then resolve to do a different thing. That's what the film's endless, exasperating plot boils down to. That's what I mean by repetition. In addition, nearly every scene feels long, motionless, static, and the two lead actresses tend to recite their mundane dialogue with blank faces. That's not "repetition," exactly, but it has the same effect: tedium.

Debate-wise, I'm at a disadvantage here. Stuart loved the movie when he saw it and has naturally given it a great deal of thought since then. I loathed it, and thus had little reason to ruminate on its details once I'd written my review. Of course, it's my own fault for agreeing to a debate on a movie I saw once 10 months ago -- and strongly disliked -- rather than something fresher in my memory, something I could pick apart in greater detail and with greater passion.

I certainly don't disbelieve viewers who say they had a profound and enriching experience with the movie. I've been on that end of things several times, championing a "difficult" movie whose detractors said, "You're reading too much into it" or "You're just pretending to like it because you think you're supposed to." That attitude is maddening, and all you can say in response is: "I'm sorry you didn't get it." That's what I have to concede on "Beyond the Hills": I apparently didn't get it. If there is depth, drama, and tragedy in what felt to me like a stilted, grueling treadmill of boredom, I couldn't find it. But more power to those who did! Maybe I'll have that experience on that next one.

Pauline Kael.
Pauline Kael.

Pauline Kael famously claimed that she never watched the same movie twice, but that didn't stop her from convincing Joe Morgenstern to take a second look at "Bonnie and Clyde." I was thinking about this story while surveying your back and forth here. If, two reasonable people can look at one movie and see something entirely different, to what extent does this factor into your encounter with cinema as a critic?

SK: If Pauline had believed that two reasonable people can see entirely different movies on the same screen, she would not have urged Joe to look again at "Bonnie and Clyde." Bland appeals to mutual tolerance are of no use to criticism.

ES: I hope Kael was lying about never watching movies a second time. If she was telling the truth, she was being needlessly stubborn and limiting her own edification. I love the experience of re-watching something and finding new things to appreciate. I used to write a regular column where I'd re-watch films several years later that I either loved or hated the first time to see how my feelings changed. Usually they didn't change much. But occasionally there'd be a movie where the passage of time between viewings or my own experiences in the interim (or both) caused me to see it in a different light. It doesn't mean I was "wrong" the first time; it just means I've acquired new information or experiences that alter my perspective. My sour memories of "Beyond the Hills" are too tender for me to be in a hurry to re-watch it any time soon, but reading impassioned defenses of it makes me curious to give it another shot at some point. If people see amazing things in a movie in which I saw nothing, why wouldn't I want to try -- at least try -- to see those things too?