Friday, March 29, 2013

New Film: Beyond the Hills (2012)

Completely composed of shifting single-take set-ups that systematically substitute for an analytic breakdown of the bleak Carpathian landscape and barren convent interiors, Cristian Mungiu's epic-length Beyond the Hills (2012, Dupa dealuri) serves to summarize the 'new' cinema of the filmmaker's Romanian national cohort, even if it at first more fully calls to mind the over-the-shoulder devotional humanism of its Belgian co-producers, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. From the fluid follow-shot that opens the film on a rural railway platform, Mungiu, in much the same manner as the makers of the superlative The Son (2002, Le fils), organizes his spaces and narrative around his two co-focal female leads, the twenty-something nun Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) and her newly arrived, fellow orphaned friend, Alina (Cristina Flutur). Mungiu's mise-en-scène in fact establishes an immediate and conspicuous contrast between the less-religious emigrant Alina and her monastic hosts, with the charcoal costuming of Voichita and the latter contingent contraposed against the bolder palette of the former. Alternatively, when Voichita visits a city hospital, the dark tones of her habit set her off within the secular institutional setting. The material is rich with meaning in Mungiu's spiritually themed latest.

Beyond the Hills builds its discourse around a series of structuring, dialectical contrasts: religious and secular, socially conservative and liberal, old-fashioned and modern, East and West. Among the two alternatives inscribed by Beyond the Hills' contrastive leads, Mungiu allies himself with the secular, liberal, Western value system that Alina comes to embody emotionally and indirectly, through her less than reciprocated homosexual feelings for Voichita. To this point, it must be noted that the film's archly unsympathetic exorcist Priest (Valeriu Andriuta) interprets same-sex marriage as a symbol of the West's substantial spiritual poverty, and in this sense its substantial inferiority in comparison to the East. Beyond the Hills thus succeeds Mungiu's feminist, abortion-themed 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007, 4 luni, 3 saptamâni si 2 zile) with a gay-rights subtext that provides the film with its own, socially liberal political provocation.

Even more strikingly, however, Mungiu's queer thematic contributes to Beyond the Hills' contemporary re-working of the Christ figure, with Alina climatically crucified by the pharisaical priest and sisters for her erotic love. (Alina, it should be added, also suffers a seizure in keeping with Dostoevsky's epileptic, equally radical reinterpretation of the Christ character-type in The Idiot.) In the end, it is the order's sin-obsessed spiritual life - a mode of being that leads to the culminating exorcism and consequent accidental killing - that proves Mungiu's primary critical object. With this result, Voichita, who heretofore has provided a reticent site of negotiation for the film's dialectical division between monastic life and the outside world - this same contrast also offers a means of mapping a socially regressive Romania and Eastern Europe within the larger, more enlightened global community - comes to understand her own guilt in her friend's death. The film's monastery is not immured, therefore, but rather contributes to the sorry state of contemporary reality that is analogically collapsed into the film's final splash of mud on the police van windshield.

With Alina's lifeless body transported to the emergency room earlier in Beyond the Hills' concluding act, Mungiu's sensational latest moves into the same (secular) institutional setting as fellow Romanian auteur Cristi Puiu's extraordinary international breakthrough, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005, Moartea domnului Lazarescu). The tie burns on the deceased's wrists accordingly invite a police investigation, which in turn elicits further comparisons to Corneliu Porumboiu's very fine Police, Adjective (2009, Politist, adjectiv) and Puiu's homicide-centered major-work, Aurora (2010). Beyond the Hills, in other words, synthetically develops into an anthology of the recent Romanian 'new wave,' with a temporal emphasis (in its description of a prolonged experience of waiting and in its systemic repetitions) and institutional analysis to match the governing predilections of one of the early twenty-first cinema's most distinctive home cinemas. Beyond the Hills stands as nothing less than its latest apotheosis, and a substantial leap forward for the director of the widely acclaimed 4 Months.

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