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Critical Consensus: Stuart Klawans and Eric Snider Debate ‘Beyond the Hills’ — Masterpiece or Borefest?

Critical Consensus: Stuart Klawans and Eric Snider Debate 'Beyond the Hills' -- Masterpiece or Borefest?

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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?

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