Romania enters Cannes winner ‘Beyond the Hills’ in the Oscar race

For casual Oscar-watchers, the Cannes Film Festival may seem prime hunting ground for Best Foreign Language Film candidates, but it hasn’t turned up much so far — only two submissions have emerged from this year’s programme. The first of these was obvious: Michael Haneke’s Palme d’Or winner “Amour,” eventually selected as Austria’s entry. 

The second is similarly predictable: eyebrows would have been raised if Romania hadn’t submitted “Beyond the Hills.” Cristian Mungiu’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2007 Cannes champion, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” earned a raft of glowing reviews — if not quite the unanimous veneration that greeted his previous film — upon its premiere back in May, and was the only film in Competition to take more than one jury award: Best Screenplay for Mungiu and Best Actress for young novices Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur. (As with the recent kerfuffle in Venice, the latter prize was something of a compromise: “Amour” lead Emmanuelle Riva was reportedly the jury’s first choice.) 

The selection of Mungiu’s film throws down an interesting gauntlet of sorts to this voting branch, for the director’s last film remains something of a thorn in the their side. Just as “The Dark Knight” is widely — if not quite accurately — regarded as the film that triggered a change in the structure of the Best Picture category when it failed to make the cut in 2008, “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” is similarly perceived in relation to the foreign-language race.

The category had long been plagued with controversial omissions and decisions, but so great was the critical outcry when Mungiu’s lavishly acclaimed drama about illegal abortion in Communist Romania failed even to make the January shortlist — its tough subject matter and deliberate construction going over the heads of more conservative voters — that the Academy was spurred into action. (The slighting of French animated feature “Persepolis” also factored into the hullabaloo.) The next year, the system was rejigged with the introduction of an executive committee to rescue worthy films not initially voted to the shortlist by the general branch — the system, of course, that prevails today.

Whether by the committee’s hand or otherwise, allowing Mungiu’s latest onto the shortlist this time would be a tidily symbolic gesture, indicating the change that has occurred in this troublesome category over the last five years. It would finally break the category’s defiant resistance to New Romanian Cinema: it may be one of the most significant movements in world cinema this century, but even with the committee in place, no Romanian film has yet cracked even the January shortlist, despite such major, prize-laden selections as “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu,” “Police, Adjective” and, of course, “4 Months.”

So, “Beyond the Hills” has a lot going for it on paper, but what of the film itself? That may be where we hit a slight snag. As I said above, the film garnered a lot of lofty praise at Cannes, but I couldn’t help sensing a faint kneejerk quality to some of the hosannas — I’ve read and spoken to few who think it’s quite on the level of “4 Months.” I certainly didn’t think so: Mungiu’s protracted study of a young woman wrestling an Orthodox convent for her childhood friend’s soul is expertly composed and pleasingly complex in its moral fretwork, but it also feels self-regardingly languorous, calculated in its dramatic reversals, in a way that the crisp, candid “4 Months” never did.

If I’m surprised at just how little I’ve thought of “Beyond the Hills” since May, it doesn’t seem likely that the branch voters will warm to it in greater numbers than they did to “4 Months.” Arguably the more “difficult” but less rewarding film, it could well be one the executive committee scoops up to make a point.

Meanwhile, Hungary has also opted for a challenging top festival winner in the form of Benedek Fliegauf’s “Just the Wind,” a harrowing true-life study of extreme racial violence in the country over a 24-hour period, based on the case of five Romany families gunned down by white supremacists in the all-too-recent past. It won the runner-up Grand Prix at the Berlinale, a fitting reward for its startling formal relay of perspective and menacing accumulation of inoperable dread — I’d be lying if I said it was one of my favorite films there, but it was certainly among the most coldly accomplished. I sense its medicine will be too tough for the voters, but it’s a laudable choice of submission.