Star rating - 8/10
Just like his previous film about the horrors of life for ordinary people in Romania, Cristian Mungiu has delivered a very tough watch in Beyond the Hills. His previous offering 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days concerned the shocking plight of a young woman having to undergo an illegal abortion. This time it is the treatment of a troubled young woman at the hands of the priest in a remote and austere rural monastery.
Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) has left the orphanage where she grew up and joined the monastery, leaving behind her friend Alina (Cristina Flutur). The film opens with a vulnerable and distraught Alina returning from working in Germany, and coming to find her, intending for them to leave together. It soon transpires that their previous close bond included a sexual relationship which Alina is very reluctant to let go of. As she realises that Voichita's deepening faith is a potential barrier to her desperate plans, she becomes increasingly disturbed, to the horror of the quiet and strict religious community.
It is clear that Alina needs professional help, both physically and mentally, and a violent breakdown winds her up in a severely under resourced hospital. The doctor feels she would be much better off back at the monastery, so extremely reluctantly she is placed back in the care of the nuns and their authoritarian priest. As her condition worsens, her frightening episodes of mental breakdown lead the priest to conclude that she is possessed by Satan, and that an exorcism is the only thing that can save her, with tragic consequences for them all.
This emotionally draining yet spare plot is brilliantly enacted by the whole cast in such an impressive manner that it's easy to forget you are watching actors and not real people in a chilling and terrifying ordeal. The story is apparently based on a real life experience, which makes it all the more chilling. The scenes in the desolate monastery are so surreal that whenever a brief slice of everyday normality is interjected via a hospital trip, or a visit to Alina's previous foster home, it has a surreal jolting effect to remind the viewer how bizarre the community life really is.
To be picky, the film is probably about half an hour too long ( but then I often think that these days), but Mungiu is an absolute master at creating bleak and searching portraits of the deeply unattractive, and in this case frankly horrifying, side of Romanian society. It stayed with me long after the credits rolled.