Monday, October 08, 2012

New York Film Festival: Beyond the Hills

Beyond the Hills (După Dealuri), Christian Mungiu's outstanding new film dramatizes real life events that occurred less than a decade ago in a remote monastery in rural Romania. Alina (Cristina Flutur), a young girl who grew up in a loving, affectionate relationship in an orphanage with one of the novice nuns, comes to visit her friend in an effort to get her to leave the monastic life and go to live with her in Germany. The young novice, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), has found peace in her new life.  She has traded her love of Alina for the love of God, and is reticent to return to the real world.  Soon enough, this case of thwarted love turns ugly as Alina's temper explodes into a sacrilegious rage that turns her into an out of control violent jealous creature. The austere priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and the Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga), known as Papa and Mama to the nuns, become convinced that the girl is possessed by the Evil One and, together with the rest of the nuns, they conduct an ill-fated exorcism with dire catastrophic results for everyone involved.

Shot on film, with a stunning crisp luminosity which must have taken a long time in post-production, by cinematographer Oleg Mutu, the movie is composed of long sequence shots that according to director Mungiu better shows the natural flow of time and reduces the director to an almost invisible entity. At the risk of making it sound as if this is a current auteur fad, this is the third film that I see at this year's festival which employs this technique.  The other two are Michael Haneke's Amour and Antonio Méndez Esparza's Aquí y Allá. Although Beyond the Hills runs 150 minutes, the carefully choreographed long sequences not only echo the orderly life of the monastery, but surprisingly also anchor the chaotic sequences that make up the exorcism.  Thus, the film flows along and actually gives the appearance to be shorter.  As the director commented before Sunday's showing: "This is a long film where a lot of things happen, not a long film where nothing happens." It is really eye-opening to discover, though, how the directorial decision to shoot long takes works perfectly in all the various dramatic situations of this film.

Ms. Flutur and Ms. Stratan who play Alina and Voichita respectively, and who are both newcomers to film, give impressive outstanding performances that are well deserved of the Cannes Film Festival Best Actress prize that they shared earlier this year.  I was especially taken by Ms. Stratan who is able to convey brilliantly in her scenes with Ms. Flutur a mixture of pious belief and deep personal doubt.  In the trailer below you can see a scene between these two fine performers.

Ultimately, the finest accolades must go to Mr. Mungiu who has crafted a deeply entertaining, and thought provoking film, and who has managed to avoid taking sides in this thorny issue.  As he explained in the question and answer period following the film, he does not blame the members of this religious community for wanting to help Alina through the use of Christian Orthodox dogma.  They at least did something, even if that something ended up being the wrong decision.  Instead, the director adds that the people who are the most guilty: are not shown; they are those who abandon children in an orphanage in the first place.  At Cannes, the director called this "the sin of indifference" and in his mind it is the main theme of his film.

For more comments by the director, in the video below you can watch the New York Film Festival press conference that Mr. Mungiu gave via Skype one week ago.

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