Beyond the Hills (Sundance Selects, NR)

beyondthehills 75Beyond the Hills is a much tougher movie to get into on its surface, but it rewards those who are patient.

 

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Beyond the Hills seems like one of those movies that most people who are afraid of arthouse films really dread. It’s a little over 2½ hours long, it’s a Romanian drama set in a monastery, and at times it can be painfully slow. Never mind that director Christian Mungiu previously made the truly excellent 2007 film 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, which was about as solid as accessible as worthwhile foreign dramas get. (Or just dramas period, for that matter.) Beyond the Hills is a much tougher movie to get into on its surface, but it rewards those who are patient.

Like 4 Months, Beyond the Hills’ plot focuses on two girls, friends who are fairly opposite one another in action and demeanor. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is a nun in the aforementioned monastery, and at the beginning of the film she’s reunited with Alina (Cristina Flutur), with whom she grew up at an orphanage. We learn later that Alina was one of the only female orphans able to defend herself from sexual advances from males (she knew karate), and since she and Voichita were friends, she defended her as well. Needless to say, the bond between the two is strong, regardless how much they may have grown apart in the intervening years.

And in those intervening years, Voichita has grown quite devout and ascetic, where Alina has presumably gotten more hot-headed and doesn’t understand so little as to not give electric candles as gifts to people who don’t have electricity. So the bulk of the film’s running time has one character trying to impose their will on the other—Voichita wants Alina to join the monastery, and Alina wants Voichita to go to Germany with her and find work.

Watching Beyond the Hills you get the feeling that it’s an allegory, and it may well be, but an allegory for what is up for debate. The film has kind of a weird vibe: For the majority of the film, you’d be hard-pressed to decide if you’re watching some sort of a culture clash drama (to put it in insultingly reductive terms) or perhaps an exorcism story. It goes without saying that the father at the monastery (Valeriu Andriuta) does not get on well with the rebellious and violent Alina, and the whole thing comes into focus when you consider after the film’s finish that it is loosely based on a true story that happened in Moldavia in 2005.

The reality of watching the movie, though, is akin to watching a Breaking the Waves/Dancer in the Dark-era Lars Von Trier film. Do you remember how you went to see those films a decade or so ago on every critic in the nation’s recommendation? And how that, when you were watching them, you struggled somewhat to even so much as pay attention, but once you’d seen the totality of the picture, you found yourself thinking about it days, weeks, months, or even years afterward? That’s pretty close to what we’re dealing with here. Perhaps make a point to see it in the theater when you’re in a patient mood, so as to attack the tendency toward distraction. If you’ve got the moviegoing stamina, this one’ll reward you. | Pete Timmermann

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