Cast: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta, Dana Tapalaga
Director: Cristian Mungiu
Rating: 4.5 stars
The Romanian film Dupa Dealuri (Beyond the Hills) by director Cristian Mungiu has been a grand success at Cannes. Not only did the two lead actresses, Cosmina Stratan and Cristina Flutur, share the Best Actress award at the festival – and that too on debut – but Mungiu picked up the award for Best Screenplay. Of course, his 2007 film 4 years, 3 months and 2 days won the Palme D’Or.
There are similarities between the two films – both are set in mesmerising landscapes, and both trace the trials of two women who share a close bond. Dupa Dealuri is a film that raises more questions than answers, possibly one of the most subtly critical films ever made on the rigours of religion.
Based on “the non-fiction novels” of Tatiana Niculescu Bran, it tells the story of an exorcism at a convent tucked away in a barren idyll, somewhere beyond the hills of a Romanian village. The tragedy of the film is that everyone has noble intentions, led by their personal convictions, and everyone suffers for this.
How heartbreaking it can be to look at close friends drifting far away, even as both yearn to save the friendship! Alina (Cristina Flutur) and Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) have grown up in an orphanage. Alina has clearly been Voichita’s protector and defender, and the two appear to have shared a relationship that is not devoid of physical intimacy. Alina is adopted, while Voichita finds Jesus. Both seek new lives in new environments, Alina as a housemaid in Germany, and Voichita as a nun in an Orthodox convent.
Their lives form counterpoints to each other. Alina is headstrong and rebellious, Voichita accepting and calm. Yet, neither will be bullied by the other. Where Alina confronts seemingly kindly foster parents who fumble when she asks about her savings, Voichita bows down to the punishingly strict Priest (Valeriu Andriuta) and Mother Superior (Dana Tapalaga). Where Voichita is trusting of everything – God, faith, life, and people – Alina is inclined to scepticism.
Our sense of foreboding and helplessness is magnified by the mise-en-scène – the landscape is frightening in its starkness, overwhelming in its expanse. Our characters are dwarfed by the vague ideals that loom over them, tied down by the suffocating confines of scriptural interpretation.
The film refrains from definition and judgment, leaving us to make sense of what is happening. The leanings of the filmmaker are slyly conveyed to us through debates in the convent, and we’re left to contemplate the various attitudes to dogma. One is represented by an emergency room doctor, who is more saddened than angry at the consequences of the attempted exorcism. The other is represented by the weeping nuns, and the beatific expression on Alina’s face, as she wakes up and appears to have attained peace.
The relationships between characters are mostly implied, and we’re never sure what to think, because no one appears to be what they seem. The virginal Voichita is disturbed when Alina takes off her clothes; but everyone in the convent believes Voichita wields some influence over the Priest. The bold Alina is often guileless and naïve, allowing her heart to lead her even when she knows her mind would be a better guide under the circumstances. It is easy to vilify the Priest, but we’re shown that he only does what he believes is best for his flock, willingly turning the other cheek when he is insulted.
As it involves itself more deeply in the question of faith, the film does struggle for pace at times. Running into more than two and a half hours, it does sag at intervals, and makes us wonder whether it would not have been more effective were it tighter. Towards the end, the pace becomes frantic, and the action somewhat melodramatic, which is at odds with the texture of the film.