Review: ‘Beyond The Hills’ wants to incite but only manages to bore

CANNES – Cristian Mungiu arrives at Cannes this year as a sort of conquering hero, finally bringing a full-length follow-up to his breakthrough hit, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” which won the 2007 Palme d’Or.  This is only his third film, and all three have been invited to the festival, which certainly makes it seem like this is a home for him and for what it is he has to say as a filmmaker.  Considering it’s taken him five years to make his third film, it’s safe to say that expectations were running high when “Beyond The Hills” made its debut two days ago.

It is, then, no fun to report that “Beyond The Hills” feels like a pretty serious misstep, overthought and overwrought, with some big ideas buried beneath a leaden approach and a cast that simply can’t enliven material that never manages to lurch to life.  I don’t fault him for ambition, and I can certainly see how the film’s core idea could be a springboard for great drama.  It just doesn’t feel like the execution pays off any of the material’s potential.

The short description included in the film’s press notes offer up a very direct version of the film’s plot:

“Alina gets back from Germany to bring Voichita – the only person she loves and was loved by in this world – back to her.  But Voichita found God, and God is the most difficult lover one can be jealous of.”

Okay.  That’s intriguing.  Equally intriguing is the film’s source material, two books described as “non-fiction novels” by Tatiana Niculescu Bran.  The first, “Deadly Confession,” was based on a 2005 event where a young woman went to stay with a friend who was a novice at the Tanacu Monastery in Romania, and within a few weeks of her arrival, the friend was dead as part of an exorcism ritual gone wrong.  Both that logline and that real-life story are very clearly represented in the final film, and that would seem to me to be irresistible material for a film that wants to dig into the place that dogma takes in the daily lives of 21st century people, the gap between religious ritual and spiritual behavior, and the incredibly loneliness that drives so many of us and the difficult ways we try to fill that loneliness.

The first and, to my mind, most serious problem with the film is a certain inertia that sets in early that Mungiu never overcomes.  The film opens with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) at a train station, picking up her friend Alina (Cristina Flutur) up at a train station.  Right away, there is a tension between them that pretty clearly communicates their situation.  They were both raised together in an orphanage, and while they were there, they developed an intense emotional dependence on one another.  That love was more than friendship, too, a relationship with a physical side.  At some point, though, Alina left and went to Germany to work, and Voichita found herself struggling, adrift.  She turned to the church, and in particular, she turned to a monastery that she found, joining it and renouncing all her worldly possessions.  Headed by a charismatic and intensely Orthodox priest who everyone calls “Papa” (Valeriu Andriuta) and a meek, kindly nun who is “Mama” (Dana Tapalaga) to all of the novices, it is a small and cloistered community, and within it, Voichita appears to be thriving, happy and focused.

Alina has no happiness in her own life, though.  She has come to regret her choice, and now, in the grips of a deep depression, she sees Voichita as a salvation, as the one good thing she ever had in her life, and she wants her back now.  Alina has a plan that involves sweeping Voichita up, leaving with her, and never looking back.  She’s already purchased their tickets to leave and lined up jobs for them both as waitresses on a casino boat, and she assumes when she arrives that Voichita will feel the same way.  From the moment they’re reunited, though, it is obvious that something is off.  Voichita is happy where she is, or at least it makes sense to her, and while she can see that Alina is in pain, Voichita also remembers her own pain when Alina left the first time, and she’s not willing to pin her future happiness on anyone else at this point.

Again, all of this sounds like the foundation for something compelling, but Mungiu doesn’t really have a feel for what it is that would draw someone into a community like the monastery, or how to demonstrate the charisma that makes Papa such an effective head to this small but passionate congregation.  Considering how much of the relationship between Alina and Voichita is left unspoken, Mungiu is still too on the nose with it, and once he establishes the uneven yearning between the two women, there’s nowhere for him to go for the next hour and a half.  That’s a lot of marking time until he finally introduces the idea that the entire monastery believes Alina to be possessed by an unclean spirit, something that is making her so unhappy.  At two-and-a-half hours total, the film feels like a fair amount of wasted time that reinforces nothing building up to a muted finale that feels like he mismanages what should be a relatively harrowing incident.  In addition, the characters are frustrating because they are drawn with such narrow focus.  They are puzzle pieces, not people, and their behavior in infuriatingly oblique.  They do what they do because that’s what the film demands of them, not because of what seem like genuine motivated choices.  Alina in particular just seems so driven, so one note in behavior, that it is impossible to feel any empathy towards her, and that’s a huge problem if this is the story being told.

On the flight over from the US, I was reading the AJ Jacobs book “The Year Of Living Biblically,” in which he undertook a project where he had to spend the entire year following every rule in the Bible, no matter how strange or difficult, and it allows him to explore a wide range of topics in the process.  The book does a nice job of pointing out just how outdated and, in some cases, insane the rules of the Bible appear to be, especially from a modern perspective.  There is a scene in this film where the nuns all gather to help Alina confess her sins, and they start reading to her from a list of over 400 sins defined by their Orthodox faith.  That’s a moment that does a nice job of underlining Mungiu’s overall point here, which is that the rules can distance the faithful from the larger, more important underpinnings of the church, but moments like that in the film are few and far between.

It’s frustrating, because Mungiu’s last movie was so good at depicting what happens to people when they become lost in and chewed up by an indifferent system, and he somehow stumbles when trying to paint that same sort of picture here.  It is the sort of film where I kept waiting for something larger to kick in, for the film to come to life instead of feeling like a disconnected series of scenes that are all somewhat written to theme, but without any sense of life outside the edge of the frame.  I’m not sure if it was expectation that defeated him or the subject matter itself, but this is a backwards step for Mungiu, and I hope his next film serves as a better showcase for his undeniable talents.