2007 Palme d’Or winner Cristian Mungiu returned in 2012 with a new feature, Beyond the Hills, based on a true account of an incident in a Romanian Monastery in 2005. Mungiu returns to a territory that he knows very well, a complicated relationship between two women and the presence of a singular decisive male character. The film opens with a train slowly entering a rural Romanian train station. Alina (Cristina Flutur) returns to her home town to convince her longtime friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) to return to Germany with her to start a new life. However, since their separation Voichita has taken vows and moved to the local monastery as an orthodox nun and is hopeful that she can convince her childhood friend to stay. The conditions at the monastery are beyond austere, no electricity, night time prayers by candlelight and fresh water comes from the well on the property.
The community is all female except for the Priest (Valeriu Andrinta) that all of the nuns refer to as Papa. Alina arrives at the monastery with her outside thoughts and modern attitude in complete contrast to this medieval setting. Alina soon learns that her friend has changed. She expects them to share a bed while Voichita determined to take her vows seriously refuses and maintains her regular prayer cycle and duties.
Alina’s outbursts and actions are a direct affront to the Community and especially to the Priest who is not used to disobedient females. Besides Alina and Voichita, he has other issues as he is involved in an ongoing battle to have the area bishop consecrate the church. Alina is eventually sent to a hospital in town due to her repeated actions. However, out of options she returns the monastery which ultimately seals her fate.
To state that Mungiu’s shooting style for the film is minimalistic would be an understatement. Most scenes are single camera with very long takes. The mood is set using the monastery itself and the fact that the film takes place during the winter months adds to the barren cut off from the modern world feel of the piece.
A riveting watch, Beyond the Hills recounts a tale of old world values and how the believers react when faced with the modern world. Mungiu also delivers a powerful message on how group think can easily lapse into cult like activities making it hard for an individual to step back and evaluate if the path being taken is indeed the best course of action.