Sunday, February 10, 2013

139. Romanian director Cristian Mungiu’s “Dupa dealuri" (Beyond the Hills) (2012): Beyond the obvious

Romanian cinema produces fascinating movies from time to time. Beyond the Hills is one of them.  There are several reasons why this film is remarkable.

First, it is amazing to have a film with two women, who have never acted in a movie before, to face the cameras and do a job that is so convincing on screen that they both walk away with the prestigious Best Actress Award at Cannes Film Festival, 2012. So what, a cynic could exclaim.  The fact remains that the two ladies won the award when they were competing  against a rather outstanding performance of Ms Emanuelle Riva in Amour (Love), a rare performance that even the American Oscars felt worthy of nominating for the Best Actress Oscar, even though Ms Riva was performing in a movie in a foreign language.

The postures tell a tale of award-winning performances

The two Romanian actresses in Beyond the Hills are Cosmina Stratan (playing an angelic nun named Voichita) and Cristina Flutur (playing a not-so-religious and emotionally unstable Alina). These two can glue the viewer to the screen for the entire duration of the movie but the credit for their outstanding performances truly goes to their director Cristian Mungiu.  In an interview for New York Times, Mungui stated “We rehearsed a lot during casting, read a lot, and I acted a lot for them, so I am giving them directly the tone of voice, the energy, the rhythm, the body language that I want. Guidance, but not with words. I’m not telling them what to do, I show them how to do. But it’s fair to say that by the end, I had adapted as much to them as they adapted to me. We did what was there in the script, but each time it wasn’t possible to get the dialogue exactly right, I was adapting what I wanted to do and editing the scene to what they could do. Because you can’t push onto the actors something that does not belong to them.”  This is what this critic believes contrasts the performance of Ms Riva in Amour versus the Romanian actresses in Beyond the Hills, the difference between the effort of an amateur and a professional. And yet the amateur can perform well under the right mentor—in this case, the director Mungiu.

Second, Beyond the Hills is important cinema not just because of the acting of the two budding actresses who grabbed the Cannes center stage for their undeniable achievement in acting but because of the unmistakable strength of Mungiu’s screenplay in the film (which incidentally won the Best Screenplay Award at the Cannes festival for the director).  The story of the film ostensibly is based on a true life incident in Romania picked up by a journalist Tatiana Niculescu Bran and later turned into a “non-fiction” novel by Bran. Now Bran apparently brought to light a bizarre set of real incidents in a small Christian Orthodox monastery where a girl dies following an “exorcism” done by a group of not-so-educated nuns and a priest. Mungiu’s amazing screenplay takes Bran’s journalism and a subsequent novel to a different plane beyond the incidents. The film asks the viewer the most discomforting and an important unspoken question “Who is responsible?” which is underscored by the final shot of the film of the windscreen wiper following a seemingly innocent conversation between two policemen in a closed vehicle.

Questioning the status quo

The simplistic answer to the “who is responsible” question for many viewers would be the nuns and the priest, belonging to the Orthodox Church living in Moldavia in the twentieth century post-Communist Romania who carried out the exorcism in their blind belief that what they were doing was right, just as the Catholic Church committed atrocities during the days of the Spanish Inquisition in the fifteenth century in Iberia. Yet Mungiu’s script is actually neutral towards the Church. It does not condemn the pious but it condemns a host of ills within the Romanian social fabric. It condemns isolation from development in various spheres, including the world of medical care and the rehabilitation of orphans, religious and atheist and the general lack of education of the denizens of the monastery. 

Beyond the Hills encourages the viewer to ask questions on blind acceptance of priests (of all religions by the extension of this particular vivid example) and their interpretation of religion, the dangers of well-meaning people wanting all to fall in with a particular priest’s line of thought, which actually is a reflection of the Communist mindset that the Romanian people endured for decades.  The director Cristian Mungiu in an interview to Indiewire with journalist Christopher Bell said: “I always try to get inspired by life itself and by things I see happening close to me. The film deals with two different ways of understanding love, about abuse, and about what people are asked to do in the name of love. And hopefully it speaks about this desire we all have whenever we make decisions – we hope we make them with our own heads and not in the name of any kind of ideology which can be extreme. It's one thing where you give people the freedom to decide, but to keep them in the state of mind where they think they don't have information, they don't get education. They are free but don't have the means to make the proper decisions. I don't think communism stopped in 1989, it stopped then as a political system but the consequences will be around for a long while."

Third, the script of Beyond the Hills will bring to the mind of an avid film viewer another film made 10 years ago—the Irish director Peter Mullan’s film The Magdalene Sisters (2002), which won the Golden Lion at the Venice film festival that year. Now both Mullan’s film and Mungiu’s film have common threads. Mullan made the Irish film based on his own script just as Mungiu’s work. Mullen’s film ostensibly relates to the Roman Catholic Church, while Mungiu’s movie deals with a monastery run by an Orthodox Christian priest, facing problems with his own Church leaders.  Both films hark back to real life incidents. Mullan’s film was made because Mullen felt victims of Magdalene Asylums had no closure and had had not received any recognition, compensation, or apology, though the victims remained lifelong devout Catholics.

Happiness with the status quo

The moot point both films raise is beyond religion. Even though the events and setting of the stories are definitely religious, both directors point fingers at the society that blindly follow religion. In The Magdalene Sisters, any Catholic girl who is raped and becomes pregnant out of marriage is considered "unacceptable" by society and the girls' parents force them to become nuns (the Magdalene sisters) that offer only a world of strict discipline without any exposure to the outside world. In Beyond the Hills, the acceptance of becoming a nun is assumed to be less forced by society and more of an individual choice—though the choice is an outcome of lack of education that there are options to lead a life other than that of a nunnery. In Beyond the Hills, the two orphan women who take the center stage of the movie, brought up together, seem to have had options. One chose to be a devout nun: another to live with a foster family outside the religious confines.

While the film Beyond the Hills seems to be focused on the events that take place within the monastery, Mungiu’s screenplay explores the mindsets of two sets of doctors/medical fraternity in Romania today, one before the death of the girl and one after the death.  Mungiu's screenplay deals with how an unfortunate orphan is dealt by doctors and by a family who seek to make money out of civil laws that financially help such foster families. The evocative but silent reaction of the dead girl’s brother when informed of his sister’s death is one of the striking scenes of the movie. Mungiu’s interesting screenplay finally settles down to the reaction of the policemen towards the end of the movie. The end of the film might appear to be abrupt, but the windscreen wiper’s inanimate action clearing the dirt splashed on the windshield is a lovely figurative comment on the film’s preceding tale and the shocking conversation between the two policemen about another recent killing in Romania that had nothing to do with religion or religious people.

Finally, the movie is essentially a tale of an individual against a larger group, where the individual loses out. Here, the individual is relatively more educated because she has been exposed to certain options to choose from, whether acceptable or unacceptable to the viewers, and this individual faces a well-intentioned but uneducated group cloistered in old ways, cut off from the world outside. In yet another interesting perspective, the film offers a love triangle involving two orphan girls and God, where predictably the loser is one of the girls. Beyond the Hills, just as the title of the film suggests, lets the viewer look at options beyond the impediments that obstructs one’s vision. Mungiu is not questioning God, he is questioning social controls, just as Mullen seeks an apology from the Church and society for lifelong devout Catholics who had to spend years of suffering just because they were raped and hence not acceptable to Irish society. But Mungiu’s cinema offers a fascinating and seemingly “abrupt” end to a rather long film without external music. And it is the unusual final sequences, which actually contribute to the movie's inherent strength. 

The recent Romanian films Beyond the Hills and Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu (2005) are entertaining examples of social criticism that combines well with superb acting performances and intelligent screenplays.

P.S. Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr Lazarescu was reviewed on this blog earlier. Beyond the Hills is one of the top 10 films of 2012 for the author.

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