Different faiths seem to have the shared characteristic of inspiring peace amongst all of its followers. It’s only when these spiritual complexes cross paths with each other that this aim for peace seems to be lost. With Beyond The Hills (otherwise known as După dealuri), director Cristian Mungiu examines such a conflict of faiths and how it can lead to a destruction of friendship.
Inspired by the non-fiction novels of Romanian writer/editor Tatiana Niculescu Bran, the film focuses on childhood friends Alina and Voichita (portrayed by Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan, respectively) and their re-acquaintance for the first time since their shared days at the orphanage. Alina, now a cleaning lady, travels to a Christian Orthodox convent in rural Romania, where Voichita has taken up the monastery life as a novice nun. Hoping to rekindle an implied past romance, Alina attempts to persuade Voichita to leave the convent and travel to Germany where she promises a new life with the prospect of employment. However, Voichita has found solace in her new relationship with God and is reluctant to so easily rescind it. Alina doesn’t take the rejection easily and becomes emotionally unstable as a result, leading to the convent’s priest (Valeriu Andriuta), the Mother superior (Dana Tapalaga), and the other nuns to resort to extreme methods to solve what they assume to be Alina’s “lack of faith”.
Director Cristian Mungiu takes his time building up the film’s dramatic steam, and at a two-and-a-half hour running time it is definitely not for the impatient viewers. However if one sticks it out past the halfway mark then the wait is definitely worth it, as the story becomes too distressful to look away. Ultimately, the film is about conflicting faiths and how lack of inter-communication breaks down any attempt at mutual understanding. Alina and Voichita both hide secrets about their pasts as well as their true intentions, making it difficult for any of the outside parties to help solve their dilemmas. It’s when these hidden intentions lead to conflicts–both verbal and physical–with the convent members that the film shows its true finesse, utilizing long shots that never cut away from the drama. Such shot lengths invoke the film’s stunning sense of realism, simultaneously depriving the audience of any sort of cathartic release through the editorial process.
Flutur and Stratan shine in their award-winning lead roles, portraying complex characters that cannot be wholly praised nor detested. While Stratan’s Voichita appears to be subjecting herself to an unhealthy religious hive-mind, Flutur’s Alina seems to lack acceptance of her friend’s chosen path. While Voichita doesn’t acknowledge her friend’s severe emotional issues, Alina refuses to respect the monastery’s way of life—which leads to drastic and harmful retaliations. Flutur and Stratan beautifully showcase a waning friendship that can only end in a heart-wrenching finale.
Emotionally powerful and skillfully told, Beyond The Hills is a documentation of the crossroads of friendship and faith and how through a lack of tolerance it cannot be easily traversed.