Beyond the Hills, or The Woman’s Prison
It amazes me that so few reviewers noted emphatically that Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills (2012), like his earlier 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (2007), is a film about women, about the oppression of women, in an era that constantly rolls back the rights of women even in so-called enlightened nations. This is especially disturbing when we look at the reception of Beyond the Hills. Reviewers focused on the plight of two orphans more so than on sexual politics, and the culture of oppression and repression imposed on women. Commentators mentioned the “true crime” book by Tatiana Niculescu-Bran, which deals with the facts at the basis of the film, without noting sufficiently what Mungiu does with the material. It is perfectly reasonable, and no doubt necessary, to see Mungiu’s films as a chronicle of Romania during and after the dreadful regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu. But an appreciation of their importance – and they are among the most significant works of the current era – depends on understanding their expansive vision, their relevance to the world situation of patriarchal oppression. Certainly Mungiu invites an expansive interpretation, based on his recent remarks and the evidence of the works themselves.
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days could not be more important to the women of the entire world, perhaps particularly in the US (not to underrate the horrors perpetrated against women in nations of Africa, or the sex traffic in Southeast Asia, and so much more), as reactionary politicians wage what the press rightly terms a War on Women, as states controlled by Republicans and the hyper-reactionary Tea Party slowly dismantle women’s right to abortion, birth control, and basic medical care. 4 Months’ grim mise-en-scene, although an attempt to represent Ceaușescu-era Romania, could easily be the backdrop of deindustrialized America, with towns and cities driven into bankruptcy and decay as capital migrates to countries with the cheapest possible labor, bringing out the worst impulses of the US indigenous working class. A colleague of mine compared the film’s look to that of postmodern horror films that have as their subtext the disintegration of society – indeed, 4 Months has far more to say of intelligence on this score than Silent Hill (2006) or the Saw films (2004-).
An Aside on Romania and “Communism”
Given how much disinformation has been disseminated in the US about the Soviet Union and its satellite states ever since the Bolshevik Revolution, it may be sensible to make a few observations about history before proceeding with comments about Mungiu’s cinema, especially if we are to see his art as relevant to us all, and not simply narratives to be read as documents of awful things that could not happen here. Neither the Soviet Union nor a satellite like Romania can be seen as “communist” if one has a rudimentary knowledge (my level to be sure) of political economy. The Soviet system had socialist features, but was based on state capitalism (if one contemplates the US system of state-subsidized capitalism, obvious questions present themselves). Ceaușescu’s regime was brutal and essentially oligarchical, again with some socialist features, but the population by no means owned the mode of production. Daniel Lindvall recently brought to my attention an article discussing a distinct “nostalgia for communism” as Romania under the new market system has suffered from a deplorably bad, parasitical economy. The article reports that in a 2010 study, 63 percent, which includes, of course, people who lived under the regime, thought life was actually better under Ceaușescu. These kinds of data are seldom seen, if at all, in the US: Romania’s population would sooner live under a tyrant, who at least offered some level of social compact, rather than a system where government abandons people outright, allowing market wisdom to have its way.
In noting this I by no means wish to minimize human suffering, past or present, nor to vindicate Ceaușescu. Rather, I want to deal at least a little with distortions created by our sources of official knowledge in the capitalist West, presently for the purpose of showing why an expansive reading of Mungiu is absolutely necessary. The institutions he deals with could be anywhere in the world. The dreary backdrop of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days compares well indeed not just with the horror film, but with distinguished contemporary melodramas about American women of the working poor, like Frozen River (2009). The setting of Beyond the Hills would also look good in a cautionary fright film about a cult, except Mungiu reminds us how useless the notion of “cult” can be. The Orthodox monastery of this film has all the usual ingredients of a cult (the unquestioned authority of the male, women in a very vulnerable situation, adherence to arcane, bizarre dogma), but the film provokes the question: is this setting a strange aberration or simply the norm in miniature?
The Train Station
Like many of the best films (I think of La Règle du Jeu, The Searchers, Vertigo, Psycho), the establishing sequence of Beyond the Hills not only introduces major characters and locales, but also some of the film’s key ideas; a close reading of its elements is crucial. We follow the camera’s point of view as it tracks behind the young nun Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) as she moves through a large crowd streaming toward us in an outdoor train yard. Trains sit on the two sides of the frame. Voichita is both trapped by and moving against history (by being involved in the outdated, dismal Orthodox Church) and against her own desire (by repressing her love – and sexual longing – for her dear friend Alina). Finally Voichita steps into the yard’s open space and turns to her left. It is a moment of freedom, of relief, as she spots Alina (Cristina Flutur), but she suddenly throws up a hand and shouts in alarm. The camera turns to the left to reveal Alina stepping across the tracks anxiously, approaching Voichita as a train zooms past her on the tracks she just crossed. Alina is a stunning young woman with focused expression: clearly her reunion with Voichita is far more important than any caution, and she seems so tempered and self-possessed as to be impervious to ordinary threats – when we learn of her miserable life in foster homes as a neglected child of the Ceaușescu mandate, we can see her as both a person so wounded she would welcome death, and a woman of uncommon survival skills. She wraps her arms around Voichita fiercely, crying tears of love, anxiety, and regret over their long separation. It is a stunning scene, a fierce expression of human need; Alina momentarily pulls back to admire her friend, stroking Voichita’s hair as her tears continue. The embrace seems only partially returned by Voichita, who tries to calm her, to make her emotions more contained. She is concerned that “people are looking.”
In the following shot, the two women sit together on a bus, Alina gazing lovingly at her long-lost friend as Voichita simply looks ahead, an indicator of her relative emotional distance. Voichita blesses herself and prays; seeing that her friend (it is fair to say, at this stage, lover) is momentarily distracted, Alina gazes out the bus window – she has little idea of what is in store for her. The film cuts to the two of them walking toward us across dull brown terrain, the city behind them. The brown, empty swatch of earth is a barrier separating civilization from the monastery they are approaching. Alina momentarily looks back, expressing a small note of resistance to the idea of leaving the world behind. Voichita motions her on, and the two are soon in front of a shabby wooden gate in the long fence encircling the monastery where Voichita makes her home. Alina notices a sign saying “This is a House of God forbidden to anybody of a different religion – Believe and don’t doubt.” Alina says very quickly that she recognizes Voichita’s handwriting – “Did you write this?” Voichita says “no,” stating “I’ve not told anyone yet. Don’t start talking before I explain. Father was busy. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him.” The alert Alina immediately senses something wrong, to such a degree that one knows that Voichita is lying about the sign, telling a fib to her wary old friend, trying to hide the extent to which she subscribes to the priest’s ideology.
Oppression and Repression
The establishing sequence, from the train station to the arrival at the monastery, is extraordinarily economical and focused in its presentation of purpose. Voichita is in a trap of which she is totally unaware because she is so comforted by it – a problem of the patriarchal world, of capitalism, of the totalitarian movements of the last century. She has internalized a system of dogma in order to survive, while the other woman, equally desperate, remains aware, always questioning, not afraid to express alarm. Alina is shocked, and made skeptical by the horrid sign at the gate, one that forbids outsiders (but what does “different religion” mean, since there is no evidence, as I examine the scene, of the precise nature of the faith therein?), with the powerful xenophobia and paranoia that pervades the entire film, and the human tendency to think (“Believe and don’t doubt”).
When the two women arrive at Voichita’s quarters, Voichita gives her tired friend a rubdown, but with a little hesitation at first – Voichita claims she has no rubbing alcohol, but Alina does. Clearly Alina has come prepared. Voichita starts to rub her back. Alina takes off her sweater and blouse and turns over, exposing her bare breasts to Voichita. She expresses her deep anguish at their separation, touching Voichita’s left hand tenderly. She wants to have sex with Voichita, who breaks off the encounter abruptly. Alina is disturbed to learn that they will sleep in separate beds – for the first time in their lives it would seem, given Alina’s forlorn expression. That their love has long ago been consummated is clear from Voichita’s comment when she consents to sleep with Alina after her first stay in the hospital, following her “breaking in” period at the monastery. Voichita tells Alina that she will sleep with her if she “behaves.”
That particular scene, occurring much later in the film, is one of the tenderest expressions of affection ever rendered in cinema, doubly so since it takes place after the first cycle of Alina’s torment by the priest, the nuns, and the monastery rules, the flagrant torment of a human being by an inhuman system. Alina gets into bed clothed; she raises the covers for Voichita, who gets in, also fully clothed (the place is freezing), and embraces her lover, showing unrestrained (but sexless) affection for the first time. She holds Alina to her, her body slightly above the woman she cradles. She begins softly to sing Alina a lullaby, and here is the rub: Voichita allows herself to express love only by infantilizing the other woman (Alina conveniently asked for the lullaby), by adopting the role of parent and caregiver – which she perhaps justifies to herself given Alina’s new status as an oddball, as a nut prone to fits of temper, an hysteric or worse (much worse in the eyes of the priest and the nuns, as it develops). Yet there is no question that Voichita still loves Alina deeply – it is an indication of the film’s greatness that the scene conveys the women’s deep humanity even as it is threatened with extinction. As Voichita continues to sing, Alina weeps, at her current suffering, her understanding that her old love is no longer the same person, and the grim prospects for an authentic future life with Voichita.
The Priest and the Monastery
The monastery is noteworthy for its sense of desolation and isolation. There are a number of long shots that show the entire compound, a set of grim, primitive buildings (without heat or light as we learn) in a barren landscape, dead shrubs in various parts of the compositions. The forlorn dread that is characteristic of some Bruegel scenes is dominant, especially as the film concludes in a snow-covered winter landscape, the dark figures of the nuns moving about or shoveling snow. Alina enters a world of death and is both threatened by and a threat to the mode of rule there operative. The monastery would seem to be a convent (I assume it is called a monastery because the nuns lead a solitary life, but I may be missing a particular aspect of Orthodox belief) since it consists of religious women. The presence of the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) changes things, since the women have no autonomy, their every decision dependent on the law as set forth by Father. The priest’s name isn’t revealed – we know only his role, which is more than sufficient to understand the problem posited by the narrative. Mungiu hints that he may simply be a lunatic (again a compelling idea if we see the priest as representative), since the nuns say he had a vision of an angel while working in a factory. He is known to the nuns, when no outsider is in earshot, as Papa. His counterpart, the Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga), is called Mama – the word counterpart is actually very wrong, since she, like all the nuns, defers to Papa, although she can offer quiet little suggestions. That Papa and Mama provide solace, a complete little patriarchal nuclear family, is manifest, and the security that it offered the lost Voichita is self-evident. She tells Alina that although she still loves her, it is “not the same” since she has discovered the love of God, which is more satisfying, always constant; she also tells Alina that she found “the path that means I’ll never be alone.”
The monastery has a profound attraction for other women; there is virtually a waiting list of young women trying to get its protection. When the nuns take food to the children of the city (an ugly, deindustrialized place), a woman queries them about a vacancy, to which they respond in the negative. The monastery provides both material security and the promise of “God’s love” that Voichita describes. The usefulness of this omnipresent, metaphysical comfort to the fractured emotions of an orphan (or anyone with emotions who refuses to interrogate the nature of consolations) depends, as the film shows us, on a mediating presence, namely Papa and Mama and their reward-and-punishment regimen, their sense of reasonableness with the “discipline and punish” counterweight.
Alina becomes a profound challenge to the monastery when, during her psychological decline, she presses the priest on an icon owned by the monastery, an image so sacred that it has special power for the believer. The priest eventually produces it; Alina scoffs and knocks it out of his hands in defiance (“Will it fulfill all wishes?”). One could see this simply as disrespect for another’s property, but in the context of the narrative it is a crucial turning point. Alina enacts a radical critique of religiosity and property itself by attacking the icon in an almost Leninist assault on the fetish value of material goods – she is the true ascetic. Her assault is a logical extension of her torment, and the attempt by others, including her lover Voichita, to stifle an intelligent mind by making it simple-mindedly adhere to dogma without question. From this stage, Alina’s eventual “exorcism” is inevitable.
The Female Body
A question is raised as to whether or not Alina suffers from a “pre-existing condition,” to use the jargon of the insurance companies (when they wish to deny health care). We can assume, based on the evidence, that both she and Voichita have been terribly abused during their early days in the orphanage, and by life in foster homes. There is evidence that Alina is physically ill; not long after her arrival, Voicita tells her she has a fever. During her first hospitalization, a lung ailment of undetermined nature is noted (her ultimate death may in part be due to pneumonia – she is, after all, chained to a board in an unheated room). But Alina’s physical debility may be read as the hypostatization of something more profound.
When Voichita is interviewed by the town authorities about obtaining travel papers (Alina wants to go with Voichita to Germany, where, so she hopes, they will make a living together – but Voichita has already decided otherwise, cowed by the priest), she is asked about a predator who took photographs of her. The official asks about the nature of the photos. Voichita responds “All kinds.” She was doubtless made to participate in the making of pornography and perhaps worse. When the official asks her if she wants to file a complaint, she says “no,” sensing that this will cause her more harm than good. But the greatest sadness here comes from Voichita’s ultimate destruction of the dream, as she tells Alina that she can’t go to Germany, and that she has found a “greater love” in God, as a distraught Alina listens.
When Voichita tries to integrate Alina within monastery life, Alina’s physical being is called into question. The priest is worried (his concern expressed in oblique phrases) that Alina represents the threat of lesbianism. Unlike Voichita and the other nuns, who are clad in religious habits, Alina wears trousers, noted by Voichita as not sinful but disrespectful – certainly to the wildly misogynist and xenophobic priest (he claims that “the West has lost the true faith” and rarely ventures outside). Alina never adopts the clothes of the nuns. The more crucial issue occurs when she angrily confronts the priest as he says the Orthodox Mass. She says, “I’m dirty.” Voichita attempts to make an excuse for her, saying it is “her time of the month.” The priest of course accepts the idea that the young woman is “dirty” and responds “please wait outside.” Voichita is terrified of being caught making love to Alina, and keeps begging off and cautioning Alina to “behave.” Alina is accused of concealing the sin of “self-abuse.” In patriarchal culture, this transgression was (and still is, depending on where you are) more serious than lesbianism, which can be a subject for male titillation. The male’s “spilling the seed” is a sin, according to the church, which proscribes all sex activity outside of marriage, and the male must save his seed to procreate. But it is excused, and seen as an element of the male “sowing his wild oats,” and finding his place in male society. The female’s self-pleasure is abhorrent to patriarchy, since the female is merely a repository for semen, and pleasure for the female, suggesting her sexual independence, is absolutely intolerable (the murder of women for “witchcraft” most often proceeded from the fear of the female’s sexual activity). Alina explodes at the suggestion, provoking countermeasures by the priest and nuns; here Mungiu makes use of genre.
The Horror Film
Alina leaves the monastery premises for a moment after the confrontation with the priest at the mass; the frantic Mother Superior shouts that Alina is trying to throw herself down the well. We see Alina standing by the well, but an attempted suicide is unclear. The nuns suddenly overwhelm her. Alina breaks free and embraces Voichita. The priest intervenes, holding a silver crucifix over the two women – Alina angrily attacks the priest. The moment duplicates the archetypal scene in the vampire film when Dracula reacts with anger and terror at the sight of a crucifix. The implication – an issue that is one of the bases the genre’s radicalism – is the bourgeois distaste for the marginalized Other (the Jew is the unstated subject – boldly stated in Nosferatu – of the vampire film). The nuns and the priest descend on Alina. From here Alina’s fate is sealed.
The Family Group
After her hospitalization she is momentarily tamed as the patronizing nuns have her join their sewing circle, during which she is asked to take part, by checking them off with pencil and paper, the 464 sins outlined for them by the priest. The rote memorization of such an impossible list – which includes even the mere appearance of doubt – is a mind-deadening exercise that constitutes the scene’s most substantial misery. The scene is remarkably shot, with Mungiu’s camera steady during the long take (his films are notable for their relentless calm, and their insistence on our attention to the subject). Alina in the middle of the group. The hand-held camera rocks very slightly, giving a bilious effect to the scene, conveying certainly the feeling in Alina’s stomach. She stares ahead (in mute disbelief?) as the nuns look down at their sewing, murmuring the various sins. The scene corresponds to one in 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days, where Otilia visits the birthday party for the mother of her boyfriend Adi. She is surrounded by Adi’s unbearable relatives. One is trapped by the demands of family, of patriarchal capitalism, but if one wishes to pursue the delusion of romantic love, certain rituals must be tolerated. The critical viewer must ask if Alina’s love for Voichita, at first apparently deeply felt, is a delusion, a feeling generated by her profound needs at the orphanage, but now associated with a person long gone. And in her place is the torment of a terrible social entrapment, endured in the hope that love and eroticism might be reborn.
The monastery’s daily chatter includes gossip and frequent eruptions of fear. The nuns find a piece of firewood with a “black mark.” Their noise disturbs the day’s activities. The priest intervenes, perturbed, and tells them to throw the piece of wood into the fire. The male’s authority is asserted, and “true” metaphysical belief versus the anxious delusions of women. There are other such moments, and Mungiu is hardly offering the nuns as typical female hysterics. When Alina is treated by the doctor in town, he prescribes medications, one of which is a tranquilizer, but also advises “prayer.” His prescription is seen, of course, as legitimate, like the remarks by the priest on the firewood, with the Church standing for a rock-solid belief system outside the flimsy convictions of superstition. On the wall behind him is an Orthodox icon and a print of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, the medieval world competing with the rebirth of the body that was the Quattrocento. The doctor’s indecision, and lack of confidence in his application of science, are represented.
It is impossible for me to discuss the exorcism of Mungiu’s film without thinking of William Friedkin’s awful horror film The Exorcist (1973), a classic in the minds of many, a work that cannot help but remind us that this terrible religious ritual is a means of controlling the female – women are the most recurrent subject of the rite in popular art. In the Friedkin film, both scared single mother and demon-possessed daughter are out-of-control hysterics (the daughter, a pubescent girl who pees on the rug, her devilish sexuality awakened, is of course worse than the mother) corralled by self-sacrificing Christian men. Beyond the Hills strips exorcism of its exoticism, as its horror flows simply from the goals of human beings, with women (the nuns) fully accepting their role, Alina seen as a disturbance to their tranquility.
Alina is simply murdered, tied to a pile of boards resembling a cross – the police authorities spot this; the priest argues that the cross is a holy object and could not be used for such purpose (for him it was all an accident). The police can easily read the “unconscious” elements of the moment. The angry doctor, a woman, dresses down the cringing nuns for their stupidity, but the scene is problematical. It is an assertion of arrogant power, a moment of cruelty for its own sake. Surely the doctor understands the blindly-held beliefs of the nuns and their basic naiveté on most matters of living, so her tirade seems unwarranted. Patriarchal ideology is manifesting itself in a commonplace form.
Voichita has been watching the terrible events from afar. After Alina’s initial torture in the shed, Voichita comes inside to momentarily comfort her. During the day, she watches the torture, with increasing apprehension, from outside – we glimpse her watching at a window. By the film’s end, she has adopted Alina’s persona, wearing her sweater, carrying the pink satchel that Alina brought to the convent. She stands in the background, facing the camera, as the police interrogate the priest and nuns in a tight group in the close foreground. The scene parallels the “464 sins” scene earlier, where Alina was in the center of the image, realizing the awfulness of her situation. The composition accentuates Voichita’s new alienation, but it is unclear how much she has dispensed with the monastery’s ideology. She accompanies the nuns and priest when they are put on the police van (will she be a scathing witness and help convict them all of murder?), suggesting that her rejection of the priest, with all the new destitution this will bring, is complete. She is a new Alina, the erotic female reborn.
“It’s the Way it Goes”
During the ride to the police headquarters, the cops mull over their travails. They are bothered by the bad weather (a passing truck splashes dirty water on their windscreen, a nice touch that can be read as the sludge we have just witnessed, which has destroyed a woman, refusing to go away). One of the cops takes a resigned, existential attitude, but one certainly indicating bad faith (the attitude of the police, contemptuous of the priest and his stupid minions, should not be read as the assertion of an enlightened mind). He says “it’s the way it goes,” an expression of nihilism, and a refusal of an alternative future.
Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 weeks, 2 Days, and Beyond the Hills are uncompromised, yet hardly simplistic in their investigation of the ideology imprisoning the female, an entrapment that must be read, in the face of much complacency to be sure in the enlightened West, as a nearly impervious prison, one whose guards are ever vigilant.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a frequent contributor to Film International, and is a Contributing Writer for Cineaste. He is currently revisiting Roxy Music/Bryan Ferry, who, with Bowie, represents the great phase inadequately, awkwardly called “glam rock.” Ferry is perhaps the more intelligent figure, his work referencing the decay of the haute monde with humor and intelligence. The sense of torpor and ennui in La Notte, Last Year at Marienbad, and Death in Venice are everywhere in Roxy Music (“In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” “A Song for Europe,” the cover of Ferry’s solo album Another Time, Another Place). Ferry’s jabs are always witty, and perhaps missed by many in the US. The title of Country Life refers to the posh UK magazine, the quintessential publication that turns nature into upper-class real estate.
Dragomir, Elena (2011), “In Romania, Opinion Polls Show Nostalgia for Communism”, Balkanalysis.com, 27 December. Accessed 16 August 2013.
Filimon, Monica (2012), “Loneliness, Guilt, and the Sin of Indifference: An Interview with Cristian Mungiu,” Cineaste, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 1, Winter, pp. 20-28.