The ByTowne has closed, but has re-opened temporarily to present "The Best Of The ByTowne"
February 26 to March 7

For a schedule of films in the series, click here.

As at Sunday, February 28th, all shows are SOLD OUT.

Some returned tickets may become available; check this link.   Thank you, Ottawa!

Beyond The Hills

(Dupa dealuri)

From the director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks, And 2 Days

Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond The Hills is a tough and engrossing work of realism, set in rural Romania in the dead of winter, but it also has some of the shadowy magic of an ancient folk tale. At its heart are two orphan girls – one dark, one fair – whose destinies are entwined even as their paths in life have diverged. One of them has fallen under a malign and powerful spell, or maybe both of them have.

Poster art for Romanian film Beyond The HillsAlina (Cristina Flutur), restless and adrift, seems plagued by the kind of mental distress that used to be ascribed to demonic influence. To her friend Voichita (Cosmina Stratan), she is no longer herself. Voichita, meanwhile, has taken up residence in a convent, under the sway of a priest who resembles, in Alina’s eyes, a malign and charismatic sorcerer. Each young woman wants to rescue the other. Alina wants Voichita to throw off her habit and run away with her to Germany, which passes for a land of enchantment among those who live at the poor margins of the European Union. But Voichita takes her vows seriously and wishes her friend could share the comforts of work, prayer and spiritual discipline.

The possibility of a happily ever after – whether in Germany or in the kingdom of faith – seems slim, but the intense longing of both women for a situation in which their love for each other might thrive gives this film its suspense and its devastating power. There is no question that they are trapped, but the source of their inability to free themselves is as elusive as freedom itself.

As a storyteller Mr. Mungiu is both passionate and patient. Beyond The Hills is long and slow moving, absorbed in the routines of monastic life and the emotional currents that ripple underneath its surface and occasionally spill out into the open. The rhythms of the film, and the rough intimacy of the camera work, allow you to experience both the calm order that Voichita finds soothing and the unbearable confinement that Alina experiences. In other words, even as Mr. Mungiu maintains a detached, objective point of view, allowing the details of the story to speak for themselves, he also allows you to glimpse the complex and volatile inner lives of his characters.

The result is a movie that is simultaneously analytical and empathetic. Based on the real-life case of an exorcism gone wrong, Beyond The Hills might have easily succumbed to sensationalism or scolding, flattering the sophistication of an audience accustomed to regarding religion with contempt or condescension. But while Mr. Mungiu, inspired by the Romanian journalist Tatiana Niculescu Bran’s books about the incident (which took place in a Moldovan convent in 2005), hardly casts spiritual authority in a flattering light, he also refuses to derive easy or comforting lessons.

The convent’s patriarch, played with tormented, haggard patience by Valeriu Andriuta, is a flawed leader whose decisions have appalling consequences, but he is less villainous than tragic, a man motivated by real compassion as well as a desire to prove his own goodness. He is not so much corrupted by power as overwhelmed by responsibility and weighed down by the loneliness of his role. Not that the film excuses his actions. But the answer to the question ‘How did this happen?’ – and for those not familiar with the real-world back story, I will refrain from saying just what ‘this’ is – is not simply that a cruel and superstitious priest went crazy.

It would also be too glib to say that Mr. Mungiu places blame on the Orthodox church, Romanian society or something more abstract, like the modern world or human nature. But all of these forces are implicated in a precise, rigorous drama that is also an earnest attempt at social criticism and philosophical inquiry. Like this director’s breakthrough film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, which was set in the last years of the Ceausescu dictatorship, Beyond The Hills depicts a world that seems to have been organized to undermine solidarity and stigmatize decency. And, like the earlier movie, it explores this terrifying moral landscape by examining the fragile friendship of two young women who are neither innocent victims nor fearless heroines.

4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days had the clarity – and to some degree the comfort – of hindsight. Viewers could be soothed by the knowledge, unavailable to the characters, that the nightmare of Communism would soon be over. Beyond The Hills, unfolding in a place that seems both post-Communist and pre-modern, is in many ways a more troubling and ambiguous film. It investigates a mystery that grows deeper the more clearly it is seen.

– A.O. Scott, The New York Times

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