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Issue 01, Volume 02

A Conversation on Beyond the Hills

by David Beal, Paul Chouchana, Bernhard Fasenfest, Blair McClendon, Max Nelson, and Gus Reed

Warning: Spoilers Throughout

Gus Reed: To put all cards on the table, I was deliriously in love with Beyond The Hills from the opening shot. We open into a close-up following Voichita, a nun-in-training, from behind, her darkly bundled little head made into a giant screen presence as she pushes forward in a space delineated on either side by the black parallel lines of two trains. The roar of engines and the bustle of passengers disembarking close in on her from both sides. This is dangerous territory we’re navigating, but we have this plucky, trundling little figure to guide us through; and sure enough, without cutting, we soon emerge into the open and find what we’ve been looking for: her childhood friend Alina.

This introduction into the world of Beyond The Hills instantly recalled the things I most love about 4 months, 3 weeks and 2 days, especially the way that film keeps us so close to its heroine at all times. The moments in 4 months that reach me most intensely are those in which the camera is positioned directly behind Otilia’s head—one of those shots, of Otilia sitting facing the wall in a hotel bathtub, finds its exact successor here in a matching shot of Voichita quietly sobbing in her room. Her face is turned to the wall away from us, an act of restraint that characterizes Mungiu’s approach to storytelling in general; she is our emotional anchor, but the exact forces at work inside of her are, for us, ultimately unknowable.

Max Nelson: I’m glad you bring up Mungiu’s approach to the psychology of individuals. He’s always been fascinated by the relationship between individuals and institutions, but that reading tends to overshadow the real care and attention he brings to each and every character, however minor or tangential. Those moments of solitude, when we get to linger beside a character and commiserate with her (though we might not know what she’s going through) help us retain some awareness of these people’s inner lives even as we’re increasingly encouraged to look on them as pawns in some elaborate institutional chess game.

The primary institution on display here is organized religion—specifically, an isolated convent where most of the action unfolds, and ultimately boils over—and I’m struck by the even-handedness of Mungiu’s take on religious orthodoxy. I feel like a good many films today depict organized religion as this tyrannical force lording it over the huddled, shivering masses. Here though, the religious institution is on the defensive, under threat from a lost (spiritually, emotionally, socially) woman who intrudes on the community they’ve built for themselves and challenges the very foundations of their way of life. If Mungiu had adopted that woman’s perspective, Beyond the Hills probably would’ve read like an assault on cult thinking and institutionalized brainwashing - whereas from the perspective of the convent’s inhabitants, it might’ve played like a home-invasion thriller. Instead, we get both: Voichita, the closest thing we have here to an avatar, is a young nun torn between her love for Alina and her duty to the institution of which she’s a part. We have nowhere to place our allegiance, or even our identification - or rather, we want to place them everywhere at once. The big revelation of the film, for me, was that we’re made to sympathize with, or understand, every measure this religious community takes to protect their way of life - only realizing after the fact that we might’ve been witnessing all along something unconscionable, or at least unjustifiable.

Paul Chouchana: As Max pointed out, the depiction of both Voichita's and Alina's points of view is crucial to the film. The Christian Orthodox church as portrayed here is "beyond the hill"; the institution has lost much of its previous influence and, in an effort to preserve its integrity, has completely ostracized itself from society. This means that in order to receive help from the covent, one has to renounce everything: material possessions, ties with society, love. For Voichita this succeeded because she was able to submit herself completely to the priest and the philosophy of the convent. Yes, it is still a difficult life that involves restrictions, but it's better than the orphanage she came from, where we are told terrible things happened. For Alina however, complete submission along with a repression of her desires was impossible, and this allows us to see the incapacity of the priest and nuns to react to that. They try to help her, reverting to completely outdated methods. Their intention is good, and as Max brilliantly explained, we understand and sympathize with these characters. But though we sympathize with the intention, the methods they employ are, to say the least, inappropriate. Their actions show that their life away from society might also be, on some level, away from reality.

Bernhard Fasenfest: I think that it is important to note that Mungiu remains remarkably unbiased in his portrayal of the convent, allowing the audience to freely sympathize with their intentions and recognize their faults without necessarily demonizing them. The church is not merely a faceless institution, but an organism made up of human beings, and human beings are intrinsically flawed. There is also an underlying current through the film that although the nuns are the direct cause of Alina’s death, they are not solely responsible. What we think of as civilized society has already failed Alina. Her parents have abandoned her. She was abused at the orphanage, and then denied the only respite from the harshness of the world that she had left, once she found a
foster family. Even the hospital sends her away, ignoring the serious trauma she has undergone and only giving her medication, rather than the intensive counseling and supervision she desperately needs.The doctor at the end of the movie who examines Alina reprimands the nuns that they should have called someone, they should have taken Alina to a doctor, but the doctor herself is part of an institution that was apathetic to Alina’s plight when she was alive. It is only in death that the hospital is outraged. Mungiu has spoken widely in interviews on Beyond the Hills about what he terms “the sin of indifference”, when a person or a society turns it’s back on those in suffering. Regardless of the nuns’ obvious disconnect from reality, they are the only characters in the film who truly show concern for Alina when she is alive and I think this is why Mungiu treats them with such respect. In some ways, it is actually their removal from the rest of society that allows them to remain compassionate toward suffering. While the rest of Romania has become calloused to pain, because of its prevalence, the nuns have remained innocent, always ready to accept someone in need of help.

David Beal: I think you guys are being too easy on parts of this.  Beyond the Hills is a furious film, and it’s enormously critical of the institutions that consume it -- it doesn’t demonize the convent, but it’s not exactly sympathetic either.  Most of the nuns are in no way concerned for Alina when she is alive; they are concerned for an institutional conception of Alina that has no relation to who she really is.  Mungiu doesn’t treat the nuns with respect so much as clear-eyed evaluation: these are women whose attitudes run from whispery gossip to feverish paranoia, with little outside or in between.  This is not a function of their individual faults, but of their institution’s insularity.  Although all of the characters in Beyond the Hills are compelling, the two main women are the only ones who need to command our sympathy.  This is because they are navigating various institutions (church, family, orphanage, hospital, etc.) in ways that are never completely submissive or completely rebellious.  Voichita is caught between the convent’s strict doctrine and Alina’s attractive impetuousness.  Alina couldn’t be more desperate for a companion, and even though she looks at the convent with contempt, her fixation with Alina trumps her disdain for the institution.  The reprimanding doctor’s moral punchline at the end of the movie is so important because even though Voichita is “part of an institution that was apathetic to Alina’s plight when she was alive,” she is the only character forceful enough to hold an institution -- any institution -- accountable for its actions.  She knows that no one can avoid institutions, but everyone is still responsible for their institutions.

Max: I’m somewhere in the middle on this one. I think David’s right to say that the nuns aren’t terribly concerned with Alina as an individual – or at least, that that’s not their primary concern. They see her as a threat to their institution, and they deal with her as such. But maybe they’re right to see her that way! She’s not simply criticizing their way of life; she’s disrupting it, transgressing the principles around which they’ve agreed to structure their existence. I’d argue, David, that she actually is completely rebellious – it’s unclear whether or not she can help it, or whether her actions are even intended as rebellious, but Mungiu makes clear that someone’s gotta go. It’s them or her.

The larger question, then, is whether the convent’s way of life is worth preserving, and defending if need be – and you could make a compelling argument that it is! You’ve all brought up the convent’s isolation from the rest of Romania, and that’s both its greatest virtue and its greatest flaw – it’s positioned as a bastion of faith in a world from which God seems to be rapidly vanishing, and a home for people, like Voichita, who’ve fallen through the cracks of the nation’s other institutions. The relationship between these two roles is fascinating, and troubling – we can’t help but wonder whether or not these nuns have come to believe in God simply because they crave the social and political security the convent offers. I’d love to hear you guys’ thoughts on that issue, but it’s sort of tangential to my overall point, which is that the convent is first and foremost a religious institution, and a social one only by extension. These women, we feel, deserve to hold onto their faith, and if someone comes along who, not maliciously but maybe desperately, threatens their ability to express that faith, they ought to be able to defend themselves.

Paul suggests that there’s a gap between the nuns’ intentions and the methods they employ, and I think that distinction is central to what Mungiu’s doing here. In short: Do the nuns have a right to defend their way of life? And if so, does that justify their actions? The terrifying ambiguity of Beyond the Hills is that we’re led to answer “yes” to the first question, and “ummmmmm…” to the second.

David: It’s not the institution that’s isolated; it’s Alina.  The institution is geographically separated, but all of society’s charitable institutions, no matter where they are, share an indifference towards Alina.  Even when their bodies swarm Alina during the exorcism, the nuns are still indifferent to her as a sentient, emotional being.  But since Alina has no place somewhere, she tries to find a place with someone.  Alina doesn’t come to the convent intending to rebel against it; she comes to retrieve a friend.  She ends up disrupting the structure of the nuns’ existence, but that’s not a product of specific, directed rebellion.  I think, Max, you mean that the nuns view her actions as completely rebellious, but I also think it’s clear that Alina’s actions are much more tormented than that.  And if the nuns and their enabling priest can’t reconcile their faith with any kind of human understanding or recognition of someone else’s situation, then their way of life isn’t really defensible.  If no characters can respond to a supposed threat to their small village without destroying that threat, then the structure of their existence is unsound -- maybe not the structure of religion in general, but certainly the way that a particular group of people protects their religion.  If Voichita or the other nuns think the convent offers security, then Mungiu is exposing how dangerous it really is for an outsider -- the convent is the threat to Alina, not the other way around!  Only in the movie’s final image does the cold mud of reality splash the nuns in the face, and we’re left wondering whether institutions of justice will be as indifferent to the nuns as the nuns were to Alina.

Blair McLendon: Indifferent to her? I have to disagree. I don’t think their bodies would allow them to be. How indifferent can you be when you’re being punched by someone? I have to believe that the tears and howls were not those coming from a lack of caring, but overindulgent care combined with misunderstanding. They are wrong, and fatally so, but they are not unable to empathize. I think we assume empathy also requires some degree of pardon and they are not willing to grant her that. Since, in their world, they cannot understand anger and disenfranchisement (and Alina and Voichita, as orphans, are never really full members of society) it must be the devil at work. Here is where I think their social position becomes more interesting. Whether nuns or immigrants or orphans, none of these people are really completely involved in Romanian society. They all exist at a remove from the “real world” either willingly or by the misfortune of having lost their parents. Mungiu seems interested in watching people in extremis, in either of that phrase’s connotations. He’s not willing to just put people in a difficult situation though, because if that was all that interested him he could also just direct lots of action films. He puts them there and makes them stew. Voichita doesn’t get the benefit of the cut away from her pain, so we get to watch all the moments where doubt, as well as resilience, flicker across her face. I think some of the indifference we feel is really just the refusal of Mungiu to cut away after moments of graciousness. We watch the nuns wail out in pain, but also in sympathy and rather than leave there we are also made to watch them bind her with chains to a cross(?). When Mungiu does cut, or when his films do end, it feels like it’s not to save us from reality, but because reality has exhausted itself.

Gus: I think it’s natural that Beyond The Hills should engender this kind of irresolvable debate. Mungiu refuses to directly comment on what happens, leaving us to shoulder the full responsibility of reading into the enigmatic occurrences onscreen, and I think the tacks we take in locating sympathy and attributing blame may ultimately say more about us than the film. One thing I think we can all agree on is that we’re very much allied with Voichita for the long haul. However more extreme the physical ordeal Alina goes through may be, Voichita is the site of an even more devastating transformation; it’s really her soul being fought over.

One more thing that might go without saying for anyone familiar with Mungiu’s work, but which I need to say anyways, is that for all the ugliness of Alina’s plight— and Mungiu’s refusal to dress up the blunt facts of her suffering— Beyond The Hills is a film of startling beauty. Beauty is a hard thing to justify critically, but I think its presence helps explain the strange appeal of the film. The sense of rural Romania we receive, both inside and outside of the isolation of the convent, more often than not seems hopelessly closed in, but at certain moments, Mungiu widens out. I’m thinking specifically of a shot of Voichita alone at dusk looking out over the hills beyond the convent, or the long take in which she meets Alina’s brother in the snow and, presumably, tells him what has happened. These moments of opening out undermine the fatalism we might otherwise read into the story and convince me that Beyond The Hills isn’t just an attack on the senses, or some sort of punishment. Things could have gone differently.


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