Romanian director Cristian Mungiu won a deserving Palme D’Or in 2007 for 4 Months, 3 Weeks And 2 Days, a riveting drama about two university students seeking an illegal, black-market abortion during the last years of Nicolae Ceausescu’s oppressive regime. Set in an Orthodox convent well removed from civilization, much less the reach of government, Mungiu’s superb Beyond The Hills, seems at first glance to have little in common with 4 Months. But in following two female friends who suffer under the dictates of patriarchal law—God’s this time, not Ceausescu’s—the film starts to feel like a companion piece, echoing 4 Months in its slow-burning tension and its intimate portrait of a friendship tested by outside forces. Yet it differs in the specific way Mungiu tries to comprehend a series of decisions that may not make sense to outsiders, but follow an internal sacred logic.
Cristina Flutur and Cosmina Stratan shared the Best Actress prize at Cannes for their performances as old friends who bonded at an orphanage, but whose lives have since forked off in radically different directions. When they reunite in the beginning of the film, Stratan is living out a simple, austere existence at the Orthodox convent in the Romanian countryside—in part, it’s suggested, because she didn’t have anywhere else to go. Flutur arrives hoping to bring Stratan back with her to Germany, but Stratan has found a stable home at the convent, and it quickly becomes apparent that Flutur’s struggles with mental illness have deepened in their time apart. When Stratan brings her friend back to stay with her, Flutur’s brazen flouting of the rules leads the priest (Valeriu Andriuta) to declare her possessed by a demon and act accordingly.
With each new development, Mungiu ratchets up the tension almost imperceptibly, bit by bit, until Stratan and Flutur’s situation reaches white-knuckle territory. (The famous dinner scene in 4 Months, where the protagonist is pinned helplessly within the frame while knowing her friend is in serious trouble elsewhere, is done with a few minor variations here.) Mungiu strongly condemns the religious laws that fail Flutur so utterly, but not to the point where “Papa” and the nuns are cast as villains or sadists—they’ve simply walled themselves into a belief system that can’t adequately address Flutur’s volatile emotional state. Beyond The Hills has a rich understanding of the appeals and perils of religious values that provide structure and meaning to some while seeming cruel and irrational to outsiders. It’s a world within a world, and Mungiu peers from a clear window.