Amidst the cinematic constellation of film festivals, a select few stars shine brightly. Haifa International Film festival is one such. Situated atop Mount Carmel, overlooking the Mediterranean and basking in hot October sunshine, the venue – as well as the film programme – was a delight. It was with great pleasure then, that the 2012 FEDEORA jury consisting of members, Yahuda Stav (Israel), Gidi Orsher, (Israel) and James Evans (U.K.) convened to debate the relative merits of the competition films in order to decide upon the FEDEORA Award for Filmmakers of Tomorrow. There were 12 shortlisted international films in contention and after much debate one runner-up and one unanimous winner came to the fore. The worthy runner-up for the prize was the Norwegian director Joachim Trier for his film, Oslo, August 31st (Oslo, 31. august), but the final winner of the 2012 Filmmaker of Tomorrow award went to the film Beyond The Hills (După dealuri) by the Romanian director, Christian Mungiu. It was a close run thing as both films featured excellent scripts, plausible narrative arcs, accomplished directing, sharp editing and above all very confident performances from all the actors but it was Mungiu’s film that finally tipped the balance.
Set in a remote Moldavian monastery and addressing issues of modernity and tradition, belief and non-belief, fear and loathing, the director displays great formal control in his penetrating psychological study of ‘women on the verge of a nervous breakdown’. Director Mungiu has been here before. His 2007 Palme D’Or winner, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (4 luni, 3 săptămâni şi 2 zile) also focussed on two women under intense emotional and psychic pressures with their fate in the hands of an authoritarian male figure. In the case of Beyond the Hills the two women in question are Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Volchita (Cosmina Stratan) and the authoritarian figure is head of the monastic order the patriarchal priest, “Papa” (Valeriu Andriuta). Alina has arrived from the outside world – Germany where she has been a transient worker – to take her childhood friend Volchita out of the monastery where Volchita has ostensibly found love and inner peace in devotion to God and within this Orthodox community. Alina wants to take her back into the less collective and more freethinking social milieu that is modern Germany and back to what once was their intensely female solidarity. The girls had grown up together in an orphanage and both had found solace and love in each other – there are hints of lesbian sexual encounters – before they were evicted at the age of 18. But while Alina still loves Volchita passionately and needingly, Volchita has decided to put all of her love and devotion into the hands of God and the monastic order.
“Papa” and the monastery accept Alina into their midst but her increasing rebelliousness and intensely neurotic behaviour soon cause all concerned to examine their capacity for forgiveness and for dealing with challenges from beyond the limits of their Order. As Alina moves from disruptive and subversive behaviours to deeply psychotic ones, the noviates feel compelled to tie her up and lock her in her room while “Papa” eventually decides to perform an exorcism on her. As prescriptive as this narrative may sound this is no one-dimensional exercise in exploitation cinema nor a glib account of religiosity in a post-modern world. Rather it is a moral and challenging exploration of the theme of belief with regard to the spiritual, the collective and the limits of love and friendship. It is a languid and meditative piece where the historical meets the hysterical.
The script is credited to Mungiu based on a true story by the writer Tatiana Niculescu Bran and the most striking aspect of the film is the director’s masterly composure in the unfolding of his story. In the best tradition of so-called ‘slow cinema’ of recent months (such as Pablo Giorgelli’s awards grabbing Las Acacias) Mungiu has the confidence, assuredness and adroitness to let his piece keep pace with its theme of devotional young novices going about their repetitive routine of praying and meditating within the confines of an ancient monastery while all the while being perfectly cognizant of the world outside and its many devilish temptations, metonymically represented in the form of Alina and cinematically presented by the judicious use of revelatory long shots. The suitably contemplative editing and cinematography were provided by Mircea Olteanu and Oleg Mutu respectively.
The volatile brew that erupts from time to time in Alina and increases incrementally as she is rejected in her physical and earthly advances by the now chaste Volchita builds to a manic crescendo that brings to mind Ken Russell’s nuns in The Devils (1971) and the sexual and social repression of the novices in Emeric Pressberger and Michael Powell’s Black Narcissus (1947) – which places Beyond The Hills in very good company indeed. Avoiding the temptations and pitfalls which could easily have thrown the film into the realms of cliché and stereotype – the absurdity of blind faith, the more salacious aspects of female sexuality in a closed community, the triumph of the modern, the unlikelihood of ‘God’ – Mungiu paints a mostly balanced picture which gives both sides of the story equal time, as well as showing them to be equally infallible, unpredictable and tragic at times. Between the doggedness of Christian belief and the supposed rationality of modern secularism Mungiu’s film seems to suggest that both humanists and God move in mysterious ways.
Following on from Cristian Mungiu’s 2007 Palme D’Or win great things were predicted for his future cinematic work and on this count Beyond the Hills does not disappoint. As for the Haifa Film Festival, it has been named by Variety as “one of the 50 unmissable film festivals in the world”. It is!
James Evans, U.K.