Beyond the Hills is a meditation on the volatile fragility of love with the increasing momentum of a freight train. This collision of romantic love and religious devotion is set at a remote Romanian Orthodox monastery populated with true believers and a few lost souls looking for peace. Performances are strong across the board from a largely non-professional cast. A/V presentation from The Criterion Collection is excellent with a crystal clear transfer and a fantastic DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix. Two exhaustive yet entertaining featurettes anchor the special features component of this HD release. Highly Recommended.
“It would do you so much good if you could just believe.”
Based on true events, Cristian Mungiu’s 2012 film Beyond the Hills captured my attention immediately and never let go until the credits rolled. From the opening scene and first line of dialogue, I was certain I had it all worked out in my head. Two friends embrace on a crowded railway platform and then, “Alina let me go, people are looking.” A-Ha! Desperation. Rejection. This art film is nothing more than a portrait of jilted lovers set against the backdrop of contemporary Romania! Boy, was I wrong. Mungiu’s simple opening statement provides a subtle introduction to his examination of fanatical belief in post-communist Romania.
After years spent working in Germany, the hopeless romantic Alina (Cristina Flutur) travels to Romania to reunite with her old friend and lover Voichita (Cosmina Stratan). The two women separated after growing up together in an orphanage run by administrators with questionable morals. Alina would eventually leave while Voichita would stay and dedicate her life to the Romanian Orthodox monastery not far from their childhood institution. With no place else to go, Voichita invites her to stay at the monastery as a guest. Soon Alina’s ulterior motives are crushed when she learns that Voichita has given her life to the monastery and won’t leave it no matter who comes calling. As Voichita says “People come and go, only God is with you always” you can see Alina’s heart sink into the pit of her stomach. The dream of running away together to work on a cruise ship and rekindle their relationship has been dashed.
In convincing Voichita to leave the faith, Alina becomes disgusted at her friend’s religious devotion. She becomes irate at even the smallest details of the day, from prayers to the rudimentary procedures of monastic life. Shaking off her friend’s combative attitudes, Voichita suggests that all her friend needs is confession to cleanse the sins fueling her tirades against Mother Superior and the head priest whom they affectionately call “Papa”. After an illness lands Alina in the hospital the tension escalates as her condition worsens to the point of needing “special prayers” to banish the Evil One.
Beyond the Hills is a deeply jarring film about love. Two reunited lovers quickly learn their priorities have shifted since their last embrace. Utter devastation from one perspective and complete support and peace from the other. The stark photography and bleak setting only heighten the dread Alina feels as her heart is torn to shreds learning Voichita’s dedication to her faith is unflinching. Until the third act, you are completely absorbed in the unfolding drama set at this remote monastery in Romania. It’s when the baffled and panicked Alina becomes violent and unhinged that you’re aware of where this story has to go.
For the audience, Voichita becomes our narrative barometer. We use her to balance our understanding of Alina and to gauge the severity of the moments we’re experiencing with her. That is until the camera is right in the midst of the fray while they attempt to restrain the poor girl. We’re kept in close with everyone as they move about the monastery. This naturalistic documentary style allows the audience to be completely present in every moment. Whether it’s the dinner table at the monastery, the doctor’s office, or the dark alcoves hidden within the compound we understand that Alina is just a sick and misguided girl succumbing to her broken heart. Sadly the head priest can see no other reason for Alina’s violent sickness than the Devil possessing the young woman. Voichita’s wakes her from the blind dedication when she realizes her compassionate “Papa” is about to exorcise Alina’s demons. Our trusty narrative barometer sends the film careening straight into reality. For a cast of non-professional and first-time actors, the results here are downright chilling. Oh, ye of little faith (in this film) consider yourself warned.
Deep into Cristian Mungiu’s film, there is a moment that still stands out to me. As the nuns race to grab wooden planks for the “special prayers” an airliner is heard flying overhead. This juxtaposition of an antiquated and dangerous solution to an “illness” with the near anchor of modern life soaring above them amused me to no end. Though the film isn’t without flaws.
Beyond the Hills finds great beauty in developing the characters, setting, and bleak routine of the monastery with intimate photography and an engaging story. Where it falters lies within some repetitive plotting that keeps it from reaching a strong momentum before it’s too late. Replete with subtext and social commentary it will certainly please audiences looking for a film that challenges the notions of belief, love, and the notion of living in a bubble.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Beyond the Hills arrives on Region A Blu-ray thanks to The Criterion Collection. Housed in a typical Criterion-style keepcase the disc is complemented with a fold out booklet with an essay from Romanian film professor Doru Pop. The disc loads directly to the Menu screen.
Beyond the Hills has the clear visual direction of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. Whether it’s the bleak snowy panoramas of Romania or the claustrophobic corridors of the monastery this 1080p 2.40:1 transfer looks great. This HD transfer is sourced from a 2K scan from an original 35mm camera negative.
Details are strong and colors are rich, even if most of them reside within grayscale. Blacks are inky throughout the feature from the dark costuming to the numerous nighttime scenes. Slight noise appears in darker indoor scenes but I’d consider it barely noticeable. Contrast is well balanced giving this feature plenty of natural depth. There is very little “pop” to this visual presentation, but what you get is an incredibly naturalistic and organic image that puts you in every moment of this thrilling film.
This Criterion release arrives with a simply fantastic Romanian DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio track (with English subtitles). Dialogue is very clear and pronounced when needed. Center channel handles the brunt of the sound mix with front/left carrying a wide range of diegetic sounds. Surround elements carry through nicely in the echoed hallways of the monastery or the commotion at the hospital with Alina. Just as the visual presentation this audio mix is earthy. The 5.1 envelops you just as easily as the thrilling story you’re watching. Keep the volume turned up to admire the lush texture hidden within the sound mix.
The Making of “Beyond the Hills” (HD 36:24) Produced by the director in 2013 this exhaustive documentary chronicles the production of the film from the original 2005 incident that inspired the film to the alarming amount of detail put into the film’s production design and sets.
Cristian Mungiu (HD 35:46) An in-depth interview with the director in which he explains the roots of Beyond the Hills from the initial story concepts to the inner themes and conflicts that give the film such a multilayered texture. In English without subtitles.
Cannes Press Conference (HD 52:48) A press conference from the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. French, Romanian, and some English is spoken. English subtitles appear when needed.
Deleted Scenes 12 deleted scenes with optional English subtitles. (HD 19:38)
Trailer (HD 2:02)
Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills is a visually striking and psychologically thrilling examination into the depths of love and faith. Though often spoken in the same breath as The Exorcist, it’s so much more than a faith-driven exploitation of belief and evil. However, it does make for an intriguing double feature. Audiences will surely hesitate on the film’s runtime and bleak tone but ultimately will be rewarded with a thrilling drama. Highly Recommended