The title of Cristian Mungiu’s new film has the glint of a blighted promise—the ultimate tease. A huddled coldwater monastery is the setting of an ordeal ensnaring former orphan Alina, who has just returned to Romania in a stunted effort to defrock childhood friend Voichita. There are sins to absolve, demons to exorcise. An Orthodox clergy cloaked in black—a roomful of nuns headed by their obstinate, bearded Papa—tries to reform the increasingly manic Alina, whose outbursts imply the proof of an apostasy bordering on possession. The talk is heaven-and-hell but the walk is tables-and-chairs, as though the gravity of the earth, not the pull of the skies, means that Mungiu’s slovenly hillside convent can never escape the rapaciousness of its tongue. Beyond the Hills—glory? But both the sacred and the profane come up even over 150 minutes, such that the terror and apathy and dubiousness of nurse and nun are granted equal measure.
Beyond the Hills works according to the procedural flipside of Mungiu’s last film. The countdown-clock component of Gabita’s preparations for an abortion in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days ultimately amounts to a picaresque in rooms (a design it shares with another of the successful Romanian films of the last decade: Cristi Puiu’s Death of Mr. Lazarescu). Gabita, like Alina, is a figure rankled by the unforgiving shove of Mungiu’s widescreen space-time continuum; both are exemplary observers—watchful, curious, companionless at a table of talkers (the single-shot dining room discussion toward the end of 4 Months, for example, or Alina as the unspeaking visual appendage to a crowded monastery dinner table. The goal is to watch the face of an outsider among the initiated, or to estrange an insider to the extent that familiar trappings become incomprehensible, a threat. Mungiu’s are chronicles of outer-body experience). She shares with any other number of cinema’s drifters and sightseers a feral, unconquered vulnerability (think of the journalist in Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor, or young Victor in François Truffaut’s Wild Child) and her shuffling between monastery and hospital and back again is comparable to the schizoid treatment of a laboratory animal, the trial of a mind forced to reconcile two contradictory operations simultaneously.
The tragedy of Beyond the Hills is the outcome of a trial—often physically exhausting, psychically unforgiving—reduced to tables and drawers. This, it could be added, is the implicit tragedy of most of the films of the Romanian New Wave, with their insistence that time is up, that the only thing left to do is the thing demanded by the room, the setting, the space—by protocol. (Thus the detective who reads, rather arbitrarily and to comic effect, from a dictionary at the end of Police, Adjective, or the offhanded way the nurse pulls off her surgical gloves at the conclusion of the The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, or the embittered married couple discreetly passing Christmas gifts out of their daughter’s view in Tuesday, After Christmas.) The obstinacy of the untoward thing in the room is, of course, one of the conventions of slapstick, and the dense, clustered sound of this film, with its interminable bells, airplanes, and jackhammers, might give us another indication—less Christ, more Chaplin—of Mungiu’s vision of what awaits a pious human life on the other side. The supreme Big Event inherits the slumber of the Big Sleep.