the teMay has arrived, which means the lineup for the Cannes Film Festival is officially out. Each year, the official selection provides an extra impetus for me to catch up with the work of world filmmakers whose previous features might have eluded me. Admittedly, I am still working my way through the lineup from the years I attended the festival. Whoops.
In a festival environment, small factors often influence viewing choices. I chose not to see Cristian Mungiu’s “Beyond the Hills” because of its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, among other reasons. Unless I have a compelling reasons to see a movie of such sprawl, I find it hard to justify seeing one long movie when I might be able to see two shorter ones.
But wow – now I sure do wish I could have seen this stunning, gripping drama with the Cannes crowds instead of just watching it alone on Netflix. “Beyond the Hills” provides a breathtaking look at the deleterious effects of entrenched religious institutions on damaged individuals. Though Mungiu unfurls his story with a methodical pace, enough jaw-droppers occur that I despair not having the opportunity to experience them with others. I mourn that lost opportunity, but I praise the work now as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”
As children, Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and Alina (Cristina Flutur) shared a great bond while stuck in an orphanage. They went their separate ways after growing up, with Voichita finding her calling as an Orthodox nun and Alina being called towards a life of vice in Germany. After hearing of her old friend’s troubles, Voichita brings Alina to the convent in a last-ditch effort to help. The gesture seems like common Christian decency, an application of the teachings of Jesus put in action.
Her outreach does not sit well with the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) who presides over the women, however. Alina represents not merely a basket case but a threat to their established order, one that can disrupt the continuity and community. “Beyond the Hills” primarily details the violent, perhaps even counterproductive, ends to which the monastery will go to preserve order – even at the cost of an individual. And meanwhile, Voichita remains caught in the crossfire, stuck between her pledged duties to an organization desperate to exercise power and her felt responsibilities to an old friend desperate for connection.
The tensions between an inward and outward looking faith are ones that I, as a person faith myself, grapple with constantly. So, fittingly, I found my allegiances torn and swapped throughout “Beyond the Hills.” Mungiu’s aesthetic matches the ever-changing tide; he employs more dynamic compositions than just a static camera observing the action from a fixed vantage point, a trademark of his work at the forefront of Romania’s New Wave. The film feels volatile and exciting even as it remains sparse and restrained. That’s no easy feat.