Cristian Mungiu, whose last effort, the grim but compelling abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (2007), won the award back in 2007. Based on true events and a pair of non-fiction novels by Tatiana Niculescu Bran, his new film recounts the incidents in a small orthodox religious community deep in the Romanian countryside.
Devotee Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) is visited by her childhood friend and former lover, Alina (Cristina Flutur), who has just returned from Germany where she had been suffering from depression and loneliness. Alina and Voichita grew up together in an orphanage where sexual abuse was common place, with the former protecting the latter from any unwanted advances. Alina plans to take Voichita back with her and has arranged a job for her friend, but finds that she is now entirely devoted to her religion under the sway of the local priest (Valeriu Andriuta).
Mungiu's latest is a telling exploration of a religious community, somewhat reminiscent of Xavier Beauvois' Of Gods and Men (2010). However, the community is viewed with more ambivalence as we see the pettiness of the sisters' squabbling, the banality of the priest's concerns and the narrowness of his curiosity. "I've never left my country, and I've never regretted it," he pronounces. He also has some pressing Earthly concerns, as the monastery is expanding and, despite local popularity, has yet to be consecrated by the bishop. Beyond the Hills also shows a Romania in decline. Everything, from the church to the hospital, is in a state of dilapidated mid-renovation, with the medical staff and policeman seemingly indifferent.
Beyond the Hills will likely be hard going for many. There is a certain wintry beauty throughout, but its pace at times is leaden, with conversations playing out in their entirety in stationary single takes. In addition, none of the central characters are ever truly likeable. Criticisms of the religious community aside, Alina seems pathological in her devotion to Voichita and highly unstable, and yet Voichita is docile, repetitive and blessed with a sanctimonious little voice that swiftly becomes monotonous.
There are moments of waspish humour, usually from outsiders, but the overall mood is one of gloom, austerity and simple-minded hopelessness. For religious enthusiasts, the community doesn't even come off as particularly enthusiastic, as the nuns mechanically fulfil their duties, all the while keeping an eye on the monastery's standing in the local village. Mungiu's Beyond the Hills is sternly admirable, but ultimately difficult to like or fathom.
The 65th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 16-27 May, 2012. For more of our Cannes 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.