Friday, 7 September 2012

BEYOND THE HILLS - TIFF 2012 - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Cristian Mungiu's masterpiece captures the insidious way in which women are forced into the sexist, misogynistic and subservient roles prevalent in cultures rooted in the centuries-old Eastern Rite religious traditions.

Beyond the Hills (2012) *****
dir. Cristian Mungiu
Starring: Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur, Valeriu Andriuta

Review By Greg Klymkiw

Women who confess during their menstrual period are sinners. Afflicted with the said Woman's Time, they do not dare enter a church (Orthodox, of course - other denominations are unholy). It's highly inappropriate to expose the "dirty" condition of vaginal discharge to the face of God or his representatives.
In fact, women who commit any sins whatsoever are shit out of luck in Eastern Rite Christian religions and their penance for any affronts to Our Lord will rate more vigorous, painful prostrations than a priest can shake his censer of incense at. Related to this is that most orphanages (in virtually any former Communist state in Central/Eastern Europe) boot out their charges penniless at age 16-18. The young women who are lucky enough to be earmarked to serve God as a Nun are the few who can avoid being sold into sexual slavery upon leaving the orphanage. Many of these women recruited to serve God have ironically already suffered abuse at the hands of orphanage officials who notoriously (and for a price), would look the other way while little girls in their care were forced to pose for child pornography. And then, once the "lucky few" chosen to serve God enter the religious institutions, they are repressed, humiliated and indoctrinated into a life of endless exploitation within the Eastern Rite worship of Christ.

I try to reserve the word "masterpiece" for motion pictures that have lived a bit longer in the world than this one, but I'm pretty convinced Cristian Mungiu (director of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days) has created a film of lasting value. In its own way the film tells an extremely vital tale in a manner that contributes both to cinema as an art and perhaps even more importantly, to humanity.

So yes, Beyond the Hills is a masterpiece. It tells the harrowing and moving story of two friends who took separate paths after their release from a Moldavian orphanage and charts their heartbreaking reunion some years later. Voichita (Cosmina Stratan) joined a nearby monastery to become a nun under the strict patriarchy of an Orthodox priest referred to as "Papa" (Valeriu Andriuta). Alina (Cristina Flutur) has been living "alone" in Germany and working, so she says, as a waitress. Her plan is to extricate Voichita from the monastery so they can rekindle their deep love and friendship together.

God, or rather, religious hypocrisy and hysteria has other plans. What follows is as nightmarish an exploitation of women as the forced sex trade - the creepily insidious manner in which women are forced into the sexist, misogynistic and subservient roles that are so prevalent in cultures rooted in the centuries-old Eastern Rite religious traditions. Even more horrendous are the deep-seeded attitudes these cultures have towards orphans (also rooted in sexism and misogyny). For a huge majority of Eastern Rite followers, orphans take on the sins of their mothers and as such, our two central characters were born into a world that believed them to be lesser human beings because of this.

Mungiu charts the final weeks of the orphans' friendship in a style that is somewhat reminiscent of that employed by Carl Dreyer - most notably in the religious-themed Day of Wrath and Ordet. Visually, Mungiu's images are occasionally stark, but unlike the austere qualities Dreyer imbues his visuals with, Mungiu's frames are much more packed with details that border on neo-realism.

Nothing in terms of production design ever seems less than real, but where Mungiu and Dreyer share approaches can be found in the tableau-styled takes and, of course, in the stories that are told. Dreyer might be one of the great film artists to have committed himself to the thematic concerns of women amidst religious and/or societal repression and their exploitation within these worlds. Clearly with the horrific tale of abortion, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and now Beyond the Hills, Mungiu continues in Dreyer's bold thematic and narrative tradition of placing women and their suffering in patriarchal worlds.

Mungiu's screenplay is quite exquisite. There is, on the surface, a relatively simple plot which allows him to layer numerous complex psychological layers and points of view (though the focus is always clear when it needs to be). His cast acquit themselves beautifully with the gorgeous writing he's wrought for them and the long, simple takes allow his cast to naturally bring the story beats alive and to play out in ways that never seem false or predictable.

Furthermore, and with the same mastery brought to bear in Dreyer's great work, Mungiu establishes a pace that is so hypnotic that the film's running time never seems as long as it actually is.

"Beyond The Hills", distributed by Mongrel Media, is playing at the Toronto International Film Festival 2012 (TIFF 2012) Wednesday September 12 Scotiabank 3 9:30 PM and Thursday September 13 Scotiabank 3 5:45 PM. For further information and tickets, visit the TIFF website HERE.