Black Narcissus gets the Romanian New Wave treatment in this stunning second film from Cristian Mungiu.
Superficially, Beyond the Hills appears as a very different prospect to Cristian Mungiu’s barnstorming, Palme d’Or-hauling debut, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, concerning as it does the anxieties suffered by a rural enclave of nuns when a mysterious twentysomething girl named Alina (Cristina Flutur) arrives who, we’re told, was once the lover of one of the sisters.
Yet, it’s very much a companion piece to that extraordinary 2007 film, focusing again on the strained relationship between a pair of young women while putting the audience through the emotional ringer with a collection of intense, surprising and beautifully executed long scenes.
Alina’s hope was that hers would be a mere fleeting visit, and that she would be able to spirit the sad-eyed object of her desires away to a life of strictly non-secular labour aboard a German cruiser. But it seems that during their time apart, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) has found a new love in God, refusing to depart from the seminary and hoping that Alina will choose to join her in an life dedicated to abstinence and moderation under the strict guiding hand of the Father (Valeriu Andriuta). But that’s far from the whole story.
Mungiu also floats the idea that it’s not simply God who has enraptured her soul, but the desire to exist within a cosy social system which supposedly rewards her purity of heart. It’s here the film takes its first grand metaphorical diversion, presenting this tiny seminary as a microcosm of Ceaucescu-era Romania, a place where free will and self expression are subtly curbed via a set of blatantly illogical dogma which are cruelly adapted for purpose by the "benign" Father.
The suggestion is that people adapt and accept life under despotic, patriarchal regimes, and to do anything that might upset the equilibrium and result in potential punishment would be unthinkable. The film asks, is it possible to live under these stifling conditions and then re-embrace liberal normalcy?
Without giving too much of the plot away, the later machinations closely mirror those in both Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus and Lars von Trier’s Dogville, with frenzied power struggles layering up by the scene as it soon becomes clear that Alina is not giving up her woman. Like 4 Months…, Beyond the Hills also eludes easy genre categorisation, flitting between social realist slice-of-life drama, heartbreaking gay romance, possession horror and, in its sublime – and extremely Romanian – final shot, sardonic police procedural.
Mungiu’s shooting style is extraordinarily restrained and precise and his sense of humour as dry as a bucket of Martini. In one scene where the sisters are seen gossiping and preparing food, a bucket of live fish into a sink and we see them gasping and floundering, trapped with nowhere to go and no future in sight.
The film is long and slow, but this is simply a result of Mungiu taking his time to make sure the intricacies of the set-up are in place and water tight. Many in Cannes have dismissed the film as a disappointment, and while it lacks the immediate wow factor of 4, 3, 2, this quietly knockout work may fare better in the long haul.