Romanian cinema excellence has been recently connected to the success of Child's Pose, the winner of this year's Berlinale, but the film I have not been able to get out of my head these months is actually another one, both praised and torn apart at the time of its release. Cristian Mungiu's După dealuri/Beyond the Hills came down like a hammer on audiences and critics and snatched the award for best screenplay and best acting at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. A brilliantly tense drama, the film ran for a rather short period in local cinemas after touring international festivals last year. Which is a shame, because while its epic running time of 150 minutes may prove challenging for multiplexes, it is beyond a doubt the best Romanian film of recent years. If you missed it, then here's a great chance to make that up with the newly released DVD special edition.
The film centers on the relationship between two young women who grew close in their orphanage days and who plan to reunite after a few years apart in which one of them has been working in Germany. When the rough-edged Alina returns to Romania to take Voichița - who is now a novice at a convent in rural Moldova - with her back to Germany, she falls ill with violent fits and neither psychiatrists nor the nuns or priests at the convent can help her. When the latter choose a desperate solution to Alina's terrifying condition, tragedy strikes.
Religion, superstition, healthcare, sickness, repressed (homo)sexuality, exorcism: Mungiu leaves no spiky topic untouched. But his touch is balanced and avoids pointing fingers, making the tragedy even more shattering. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the film shows this with painful clarity: there are no bad and good guys, there is only goodwill on all sides, but matched with ignorance, poverty, institutional failings, and lack of empathy, it does more harm than anyone could ever foresee. Neither the film nor the audience can place the blame in this tragedy; the real evil lies in the complexity of all these factors. And the fact that it is based on true events makes the shock even greater. Mr Mungiu is fearless in choosing to tackle uncomfortable - and thus rarely addressed - issues from recent history, as he did with his breakthrough, the stunning abortion drama 4 luni, 3 săptămâni și 2 zile/4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Romanian cinema and society, for that matter, owe him immensely.
All other elements of the film are equally impressive: the intelligent script, the brilliant acting (especially the striking Cristina Flutur as Alina), the lovely camera work. Even the testing running time, something which usually makes my eyes roll, serves the purpose perfectly: any minute less and the human drama would have lost nuance.
The film may play in a remote area but what it has to say about contemporary Romania is spot-on. Few films will stay with you as hauntingly as Beyond the Hills. It is a heartbreaker. But what a beautiful one.
By Ioana Moldovan, columnist, [email protected]