Saturday, November 3, 2012

AFI Fest Review: "Beyond the Hills"

Director: Cristian Mungiu
Runtime: 155 minutes

At the start of the screening of Beyond the Hills, director Cristian Mungiu informed the audience that his film had been cut down from three hours to two and a half hours since its successful run at Cannes (where it picked up Best Actress and Best Screenplay honors). As one of the major titles I missed at Cannes, I was interested by the large chunk of time Mungiu had cut since the film's first bow. Mungiu's last film, the outstanding 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (which won the Palme at Cannes in 2007) was an absorbing and devastating character portrait that - barring one scene - earned every second of its lengthy running time. Would Beyond the Hills feel shortchanged by Mungiu's edits, or would the cuts help create a similarly absorbing work, I wondered. The answer is neither. While Hills features the same assured, unflinching vision of 4 Months, it needs a few more trips to the editing room. There is certainly a brilliant movie in the footage I saw, but at least another 30 minutes need to be left on the cutting room floor first.

Based somewhat on true events, Mungiu's film is, just like 4 Months, set in his native land of Romania. Yet Mungiu has leapt only a short distance back in time with this film (to 2005), which makes the narrative that much more upsetting. Once again, Mungiu casts his gaze on two women, although the relationship and circumstances couldn't be more different. Opening with a rather long shot (Mungiu is a fan of cutting as little as possible), we see Alina (Cristina Flutur) returning from Germany and reunited with her friend (and possible former lover) Voichita (Cosima Stratan). In the time that Alina has been gone, Voichita has joined the local order of nuns in a creaking monastery set on a hill. The place is overseen by the mother superior (Dana Tapalaga) and a stern, disdainful priest (Valeriu Andriuta). Alina stays with Voichita in her modest quarters, and is initially welcomed. Yet once Alina suffers a bizarre set of fits, things take a series of increasingly unpleasant turns. 

Unlike 4 Months, Hills feels like a much more "active" film. Where the director's 07 film only had a handful of movements and locations, Hills cuts more frequently and has its characters move around quite a bit. Yet Mungiu's work is still strongest when he fixates his camera and doesn't allow any cuts until he's completely done with a particular shot or sequence. Whether in the simple opening moments, or in the stomach-churning climactic moments, its a technique that commands one's attention. And even though the first act or so has the occasional moment that isn't fully gripping, on the whole it works. As Alina's ailments bring out the monastery's religious fervor, Mungiu guides the film on a carefully executed descent into unchecked zealotry. 

And when the screenplay, direction, and acting align, the result is a powerhouse film about the religious extremism, and the harm it can cause. Watching a group of terrified nuns tie down the supposedly "corrupted" Alina is nothing short of horrific. And though Mungiu allows these scenes to linger, his gaze never becomes condescending or mocking. Nor does he allow the film to devolve into cheap sensationalism. There have been any number of idiot films involving demonic possession over the past few years. Beyond the Hills could not be further from the pack. No one's head turns completely around, nor does anyone tells a priest about his mother's allegedly sordid deeds in hell. 

As was the case with 4 Months, Mungiu's work with his actors is also brilliant. Stratan and Flutur (who shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes) turn in a pair of outstanding performances, although the former gets significantly more face time to work with. Once Flutur's Alina falls prey to the "mercy" of the monastery, the camera almost takes over her role as an indictment of a religion stuck woefully in the past. Stratan's evolution, as such, is a little more impressive, as she begins the film as an almost annoyingly simple and sweet-natured woman of faith and ends the film completely shattered by what she's witnessed. It's a transformation that Mungiu never spells out either in imagery or in dialogue, and part of why Voichita's arc is so effective without drawing needless attention to itself. And despite the unwavering stone-faced nature of the monastery's priest, Mungiu refrains from making him a one-note caricature. Whatever deeds are done, this is a film with no traditional villain of any sort, given the motivations involved. 

Yet in spite of all that's good or great about Beyond the Hills, Mungiu still has a little too much of a good thing with this project. Watching the nuns "treat" Alina provides its fair share of harrowing moments. However, the film could do with fewer scenes involving one of the monastery's inhabitants bursting into a room with alarming news about Alina. There comes a point where the story's direction becomes rather clear, yet Mungiu seems reluctant to just get there already, and instead shows us every little development in Alina's life, and the repercussions it has on Voichita. More tiresome, however, is the massively protracted denouement. After a superbly executed set of climaxes, the film drifts on, teasing the possibility of a seque to the ending, before continuing on as if there were still two or three hours of story left. There were even times when I wanted to, in the spirit of Monty Python, yell "Get on with it!" at the screen. Rather than end on a high note, Mungiu takes his film too far once it has run out of gas. 

So, instead of a mostly strong film, Beyond the Hills is more like a film with greatness in it that still needs a lot of flab removed. All of the traits that made 4 Months so outstanding are present here, from the camera work to the writing to the top-tier acting. Yet unlike 4 Months, Mungiu's latest wears out its welcome, despite its alleged cuts. Instead of some flawed masterwork, what we're left with - for now - is an diamond in the rough that is in desperate need of further polishing. 

Grade: B/B+

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