April 8, 2013

Movie Review: "Beyond the Hills" (An Orthodox Christian Perspective)

By John Sanidopoulos

April 8, 2013

Warning: Contains spoilers

Beyond the Hills (Romanian: Dupa dealuri) is a Romanian film that was released there in October 2012, and was inspired by the non-fiction novels of Tatiana Niculescu Bran, who investigated the 2005 death of a novice during an exorcism ritual in a Moldavian monastery. It was directed by Cristian Mungiu and stars Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur. The film received world-wide attention when it premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, where Mungiu won the award for Best Screenplay, and Stratan and Flutur shared the award for Best Actress. It was also selected as the Romanian entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar at the 85th Academy Awards, making the January shortlist.

The film was not released in America until March 8th of 2013, but it was limited only to New York and Los Angeles. It opened here in Boston this past weekend, and had I seen it before I made my top ten film list of 2012, it surely would have been included among my top ten films of 2012. The movie is almost flawless, with minor criticisms. For example, sometimes there are repeated conversations on the same subject which got to be a bit annoying, but at the same time it adds to the claustrophobic feeling of the film which I believe is necessary if it was to have any emotional impact, though it could also make you feel relieved it is finally over when it's done. It also does not show any of the exorcism ritual, though it can be heard, but it is left to the imagination, probably intentionally. On the other hand, the detailed directing and powerful acting in the movie are what stand out in an extraordinary way, immediately connecting you to the people and setting of the story.

The film is primarily about Romania today, relationships and superstition. One thing it is not however is an Orthodox Christian movie. Romanian Orthodoxy is merely the backdrop in which everything unfolds. Nor is it overly sensational for a movie that focuses on a demon possessed girl. If you want sensationalism, then you can see the Evil Dead remake, which also opened this past weekend and I gave a 3.5 out 5 stars to.


"In an isolated Orthodox convent in Romania, Alina (Cristina Flutur) has just been reunited with Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) after spending several years in Germany. The two young women have supported and loved each other since meeting as children in an orphanage. Alina wants Voichita to leave and return with her to Germany, but Voichita has found refuge in faith and a family in the nuns and their priest, and refuses. Alina cannot understand her friend's choice. In her attempt to win back Voichita's affection, she challenges the priest and nuns with violent behavior. She is taken to a hospital where it is suspected she may be schizophrenic, but the people of the monastery start to suspect that she is possessed. When the doctors send her back to the monastery to rest, Alina is included in the monastic routine in the hope that she will find peace. But her condition worsens and they finally have to tie her to a wooden plank to prevent her from hurting herself. After ruling out all other options, the priest and nuns decide to read her prayers to deliver those possessed by the Evil One. They perform an exorcism, but the result is not what they had hoped, and Voichita begins to doubt the religious choice she has made. She decides to free Alina - but her decision comes too late." (Rotten Tomatoes)

Romania Today and the Background of the Film

When the novels of Tatiana Niculescu Bran were released and later the film last year, there were mixed responses from the Romanian people. Some were very enthusiastic about it for exposing to the world a part of Romania that remains a bit backwards compared to the rest of the world, especially by standards in the West, and those of a more traditional mind, like the Romanian Orthodox Church and the Romanian government, criticized it for exploiting a small segment of Romania today as if it reflected the entire country.

To put this in perspective, something should be said about Romanian films today. For those unaware, some of the most vibrant and engaging films coming out of the international film market today are known by its movement as Romanian New Wave. Romanian films and directors such as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (Cristi Puiu, 2005), Police, Adjective (Corneliu Porumboiu, 2009) and of course Cristian Mungiu's "abortion movie" 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days are most representative of this movement. "Some people claim that these films distort and tarnish Romania’s image abroad with 'shameful' representations of malignant hospitals, corrupt state officials, young women who have abortions and taciturn loners who buy shotguns and shoot them for seemingly no apparent reason." This is also at the heart of the movie Beyond the Hills. It is a critique of the Romanian government's opposition to such films, which have received much attention in the West, and their refusal to see art for art's sake.

One could see how Mungiu not so subtly captures this throughout Beyond the Hills. Alina is coming from the West, from Germany, and she becomes demonized for her illness. The priest, played by Valeriu Andriuţă, when asked by Voichita if Alina can stay in the monastery until she gets her things settled, has doubts and talks about how he would never leave Romania to go to the corrupt West, where homosexuals even try to win their right to marriage. Little does he know however that Voichita and Alina, played by two attractive actresses, and who were both abused while orphans at a nearby orphanage together as children, had a lesbian relationship with each other before the former went to become a nun and the latter left for the West. Alina's sole intention is to bring Voichita back with her to Germany and rekindle their passion for one another.

Besides Lesbianism and seduction, another "shameful" element in Beyond the Hills is "masturbation ('self-abuse', the mention of which triggers physical violence in Alina); the autism of Alina’s brother (Romania doesn’t officially recognize autism after the age of 18); paranoid schizophrenia (never discussed as a disease, but implied by the specific medications the doctor prescribes to Alina); and the challenge to the presumed benevolence and authority of the Orthodox Church, to which more than 86% of the Romanian population claims to belong actively. The young women are, incidentally, in their early 20’s, which means they also represent the many abandoned and neglected children that made headlines in the early 90’s — this, too, has been considered a moment of 'shame' for Romania."

The new Romanian films are difficult to watch, both for older Romanians who lived most of their lives under Communism and now face a bleak retirement, and for the younger generation who are trying to get past the recession, because they are too long, too silent, too intellectual, and not entertaining enough. These movies however are about how Romanian artists are being stripped of their rights to express what they want to express, which is why in the West they are seen to be such masterpieces. In the end, it is all about politics.

The Orthodox Response

As I said earlier, this is not a movie about Orthodoxy, but Romanian Orthodoxy does provide a vital backdrop for the film. Orthodox Christians would delight to see some of the elements of Orthodox monastic life and Romanian culture in the film. It is also an excellent teaching aid for clergy and seminarians on issues such as spiritual guidance, demonology and superstition. However, some may also be scandalized by the superstitious element throughout the film, even though most of the movie is based on real events. Much attention is given over to moralism, to the point where it almost becomes smothering. There is one scene in the movie where the nuns are helping Alina prepare for her first confession, and the priest gives them an instruction manual with a list of sins that should be confessed. There are over 400 sins on this list, and they proceed to go one by one down the list, as Alina checks off nearly everything listed. One gets a sense of despair in Alina. Her intention in going to confession is to win over the heart of Voichita, but her double mindedness to also seek approval by God, the priest and the monastics drives her to despair and thus hatred for the priest, the nuns and the Church in general. Another aspect of the film which may scandalize is the emphasis on Alina's and Voichita's lesbian relationship, especially one particular seduction scene in Voichita's monastic cell when Alina presents herself topless during a massage in order to seduce Voichita, and Alina's insistence on sleeping together in the same bed.

When viewing the movie, it must be looked upon as a fictionalized account of a real and tragic episode of modern day post-communist Romania. Though the film presents the basic correct outline of the tragedy, it also over dramatizes the relationship aspect, yet it also downplays somewhat the superstitious aspect. In fact, the movie surprisingly presents everyone as somewhat balanced. There is even one scene in the movie where the priest criticizes the nuns for focusing too much on miracles and signs, and his only crime seems to be that he is a bit too traditional, yet he still has a heart of compassion to really want to help Alina. The movie does not place exclusive blame on anyone, but rather shows the desperation that brought upon the extreme action of tying and gagging a disturbed girl to a cross-shaped plank for days in the freezing cold without food or water. In reality, however, the priest never really admitted he did anything wrong, but exalted in the fact that the exorcised girl was released from demonic possession through her death. This could be due to the fact that the priest was young, below 30 years old, a bit uneducated, and possibly even delusional himself.

Father Constantin Sturzu, a spokesman for the Metropolitan of Moldova and Bucovina, reviewed the film and said that he didn't think Christians would find anything objectionable in the film. The film shows everyone was somewhat partly to blame for the tragedy, not only the priest and nuns but also the hospital who did not treat the mentally ill patient well. Nor does it try to provide a verdict in the case. He criticizes the film for depicting certain aspects of monastic life as having no basis in reality, such as when the nuns call the priest "papa" and the abbess "mama", to show that their monastic life is like a new family. He also criticizes a bit the superstitious element of the movie, as if Orthodox Christians are taught to believe without questioning, which is not the case. An opportunity is also found to discuss how Canons are guides for how the Church is to conduct itself, and it is their spirit that must be grasped more than the exactitude of keeping them to the letter. The purpose of the Canons are to aid the believer to union with God through a measured application, rather than drive people to despair through a rigid application. He concludes by saying: "The film could be an excellent teacher, but cannot be an icon of Orthodox Christianity. I hope Director Cristian Mungiu will exit from the iconoclastic period."


The final scene of the movie shows the arrested priest and nuns being carried off in a van by police to be tried for their crimes. Two officers are discussing another horrible crime that happened that morning, and how society is going downhill with such tragedies. Suddenly a torrent of muddy water hits the windshield, while windshield wipers struggle to clean it off. This suggests that there is no human agency great enough to handle the world's misery. Both the government and the Church have failed to remove this stain. "In this aspect Cristian Mungiu is like Ingmar Bergman, where humanity is deeply flawed, God is indifferently silent, and the landscape is perpetually cloaked in winter." It's not a very "fun" laid back movie, but its ideas do stick with you. It is riveting to watch and fascinating to think about.

I highly recommend Beyond the Hills for everyone to see, primarily for the excellent film making, acting, and even the issues it brings up for discussion. It is a haunting movie that poses no easy answers, because, as it suggests, there are none to be found.

Or are there?

I also recommend the two videos below. The first is a Romanian news report of the actual tragedy with film of the actual victim as well as the monastery, priest and nuns. The second is an interview with Cristian Mungiu during the 50th New York Film Festival.