Beyond the Hills ★★★★½

[An essay I wrote for the Curator, originally published on 4/8/13.]


Romanian writer-director Christian Mungiu’s superb new feature, 'Beyond the Hills', is an astonishingly sneaky work of religious and cultural criticism, nearly as duplicitous as Old Pitch himself. Its potency relies to a significant extent on a rather nasty manipulation of the viewer’s perceptions and expectations. However, unlike the cheap twists that characterize big-budget and two-bit thrillers alike, 'Beyond the Hills'‘ chicanery is of a generic rather than narrative nature. The film functions as a virtuosic cinematic parlor trick, designed to provoke the viewer into a stark confrontation with the most monstrous aspects of a conservative, demon-haunted religiosity. In its chilly and somber way, Mungui’s film is a fictional corollary to documentary exposés such as 'Deliver Us From Evil' and 'Jesus Camp', depicting as it does the abuses that are obfuscated, rationalized, and even glorified under the auspices of the sacred. Nevertheless, despite its bluntly damning portrayal of Romanian Orthodoxy—and of patriarchal, reactionary theology in general—'Beyond the Hills' is a remarkably sober engagement with superstitious hysteria as an all-too-human phenomenon. The sensation that emerges from the film is not a white-hot anti-religious rage, but a sort of perplexed secularist gloom at our species’ propensity to engage in oblivious cruelty, so long as it is cloaked in whispered invocations.

A similar inhumanity is a central component of Mungiu’s 2007 Palm d’Or-winning sophomore feature, '4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days', although in that film the depraved social strictures are of a nominally atheistic nature. In its portrayal of a back-alley abortion in the waning days of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s Communist dictatorship, '4 Months' relies upon a stone-faced realism to establish the suffocating terror that suffuses its female protagonists’ desperate odyssey. In this way, Mungiu creates a first-rate thriller that also functions as pointed attack on the misogyny of autocratic authority, providing a sharp illustration of the everyday means by which women’s liberty is constrained.

'Beyond the Hills' explores similar thematic territory, but the two films employ markedly divergent approaches. '4 Months' depends on straightforward adherence to genre, fulfilling the promise of its thriller form with an almost ruthless resolve. Indeed, the cold-sweat atmosphere that Mungiu’s 2007 film summons is strongly dependent on the manner in which its screenplay suggests each enervating movement before it occurs. 'Beyond the Hills', meanwhile, relies on a genre fake-out. While it dresses in the vestments of a reserved character-based drama, the film’s story is gradually revealed as a work of demonic horror—albeit one in which the supernatural exists solely in the minds of the perpetrating zealots. Other filmmakers have exploited narrative ambiguity to phenomenal effect in recent years—Michael Haneke’s 'The White Ribbon' and Abbas Kiaorstomi’s 'Certified Copy' come to mind—but Mungiu’s new feature is the rare work that that plays upon the viewer’s assumptions regarding artistic categories...

Read on at the Curator: