By Christopher Sharrett.
I have commented on this site at length on Cristian Mungiu’s masterpiece Beyond the Hills (2012), and while it deserves thorough revaluation, I will note merely its importance by way of a remark on its Blu-ray release by Criterion. It is worth saying that this is the film’s first Region 1 release on DVD or Blu-ray, another measure of how seriously the U.S. takes film culture (there is a fine Artificial Eye disc of the film, released years ago). The Criterion edition is sparkling, with useful interviews among the supplements, but did no other company see this film’s importance? At this writing, there is no Region 1 release of Bruno Dumont’s superb Hors Satan (2011), nor his earlier Hadewijch (2009). Nor do we have Blu-ray editions of Michael Haneke’s films, perhaps the most important cinema of our times. I could go on with my usual curmudgeonly rant about the neglect of important films while home video and its streaming “services” are packed with the newest superhero drivel, the “tent pole” films that the industry loves. Let’s hope that in its lust for new product the industry will notice what isn’t on the market; in the meantime, we need to thank Criterion, Olive, Twilight Time, Shout! Factory, Arrow, Kino Lorber, Vinegar Syndrome, and a number of other companies for doing yeoman service as film culture limps along.
Although Beyond the Hills is derived in part from a “true crime” book about the murder of orphans in post-Ceausescu Roumania, Mungiu has created a film about the universal plight of women while making a remarkable contribution to the New Roumanian Cinema – a contribution expanded by his more recent Graduation (2016).
Two young women, Vochita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur), friends since their years in an orphanage, reunite in passionate embrace at a train station (where the trains seems about to crush them both). Voichita is now a novice nun at a bleak convent, pictorially an image from Bruegel’s canvasses, who refuses the lesbian love from Alina that the women once shared. Voichita, in her search for security, has internalized the doctrines of the Orthodox Church that rule the convent in the person of a severe priest (Valeriu Andriuta), referred to as “Papa,” just as the Mother Superior is called “Mama,” reminding us that the first source of the nuclear family and its ideology is the church. The convent’s repression is the subject of the film. It is worsened by Alina’s very arrival, an outsider whose questions – and physical presence, since she projects sensuality – become an immediate threat. She is treated as a monster, at one point subdued with a crucifix, as if she were a vampire in a Hammer film. She is actually subjected to near-crucifixion, chained to boards in the freezing cold, Voichita offering only feeble consolation until her own doubts make her take off her nun’s attire, dressing instead in one of her friend’s sweaters (although it is unclear, I think, if she will actually leave the convent – where can she go?) and trying to liberate Alina. In the course of the narrative, we learn about the various forms of exploitation and torment suffered by the two women – perhaps all the women in the convent – including rape and child pornography. As extreme as the narrative seems, one can’t help but think about the current war on women in the U.S. and elsewhere in the supposedly enlightened Western world, as nations embrace reactionary politics out of economic desperation – coupled with the typical hatred of the other accompanying fascist tendencies when resentment is fused to actual human need.
The universality of Mungiu’s film is obvious as we observe the acquiescence of the nuns to “Papa’s” rule. It is easy for them to internalize doctrine, and to pray with conviction – what, after all, is their alternative? As we learn of Alina’s past, and her plans with Voichita, the two women seem superhuman. The oppression surrounding them is total; even when local authorities learn of the routine awfulness of the convent, the attitude is both contemptuous and blasé. No one is going to shut the convent down, for all the talk of abuse and worse – just as few official measures, beyond some lawsuits and prosecutions, have been taken against the church in the wake of the child abuse “scandals” – I use quotation marks since the term itself signifies a bizarre aberration in the midst of an otherwise healthy organism. But with the closing of whole parishes, perhaps the church is collapsing of its own weight.
The suggestion at the end of Beyond the Hills that the same horrors will continue is contained in a final image of dirty slush from a recent snow slopping on the police windscreen, a cop sighing that it’s just the way life is. Indeed, it is too easy to let things go, for TV newsreaders to present a smiling face, for elected officials to pretend things will be fine if they go on unchecked.
There is an urgency in Beyond the Hills, a work that draws on the ideas of the medieval past to alert us to a wished-for apocalypse built on ideas for too long left unquestioned, as science is deemed “fake,” or one narrative among many (the victory of the postmodernists). We can look forward to the work of Cristian Mungiu with anticipation; his seriousness is consistent. Graduation examines the mutual back-scratching and pay-offs of present-day Roumania, a society in tatters. But how is it different from the U.S. at all levels, from a pay-to-play political system that robs the population, to well-heeled parents able to put their kids in the best schools without worry of debt (although the concern here may fade, as university education is devalued as the proper “training school” for those to whom we bequeath the post-industrial economy, in so far as we have one)? The work of Mungiu has a deceptive simplicity that serves him well. He is among our greatest artists; he will be brought low, I think, only by economic interests.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film studies for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International and has joined the board of the horror film journal Monstrum.