“How could this happen?” was the common reaction when the 2005 news story broke about a woman who died in a Moldavian convent after being tied to a wooden cross-like plank and suffering internal injuries during a so-called exorcism. Beyond the Hills, director Cristian Mungiu’s long and grinding follow up to his breakthrough hit 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, answers how such a thing could indeed happen: very slowly.
Alina (Christina Flutur) is a drifter. After a bad turn of luck and lacking any dependable family members to rely on, she starts crashing with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), her best friend since childhood, who has recently taken holy vows and is living with the nuns in a convent somewhere far beyond the middle of nowhere. It’s the kind of refuge so barren and lost in time, you might need some context clues to figure out that the movie does indeed take place in the present day. Residents drag their own water from a well and contentedly pray all day long, far from the concerns of this 21st century.
Alina is aghast, hoping at first to run away to Germany with her old pal and baffled by all the newfound religiosity. (Mungiu hints at lesbian overtones to their relationship without ever explicitly making the case, a common M.O. throughout the picture.) This community is deliberately secluded, doing good deeds for the local townspeople while also so conspicuously removed from the world, you’ll wonder when a “retreat” becomes a surrender. An Orthodox priest, played with weary exhaustion by Valeriu Andriuta, rules the roost with a benevolent sigh. He’s a flawed, decent man who is obviously quite fearful of the modern world.
So it happens that when lingering houseguest Alina begins exhibiting signs of mental illness, all roads lead to demonic possession, at least as far as this convent is concerned. Mungiu shoots the film in the flattest, most matter-of-fact way possible, relying on long camera takes with no musical accompaniment, lulling us to the day-to-day drag of this monastic lifestyle. The more lurid and sensational details of the case are flattened out by his presentation, until every desperate measure appears perfectly logical.
Reality bites back hard in Beyond the Hills, and the film’s final act is joltingly effective—slapping the viewer across the face with a cold succession of cruel punchlines. It just takes forever to get there, presumably by design.