Beyond The Hills and into something else

Peter Labuza, film critic, podcaster and professor, has lately been on the lookout for moments of pure cinema, where we leave behind the comfort of a screen and a light and enter the world of the film. Complete immersion a la William Hurt in Altered States. I had one for him that I'll repost here because I want the world to know how powerful the film in question is, but also as a reminder to all that Film can be so much more than light projecting images, than people playing characters, of people telling stories. At their best, they are something bigger than any of us.

Beyond The Hills
by Cristian Mungiu
I'm one of the biggest fans of the Romanian New Wave there is. I'll see anything from the nation's new crop of filmmakers and I believe they have discovered (invented/built upon) a cinematic language that the rest of the world can't speak as fluently. What many people call Slow Cinema, they speak with the rapid fire certainty of auctioneers or conmen. They can talk audiences into anything. Corneliu Porumboiu turned the every step of a detective into drama as fascinating as Jean-Pierre Melville's tales of crooked cops and doomed gangsters. Cristi Puiu turned death into the most tragic of circuses; all cheap spectacle and detached onlookers. Radu Muntean framed divorce as if it were ritualistic murder, every barb and agonizing second another twisting of the knife. And Cristian Mungiu has turned authority into a poison that kills bonds between young women. They all play by the same rules: Unbroken takes, lived-in presences, scenes framed as if seen through closed circuit surveillance, silence, the awkwardness of living with secrets. They are effective because they're only interest is in the truth of whatever moments they uncover.

Beyond The Hills is one of the first Romanian New Wave films to leave urban existence behind in favor of something that feels more deliberately cinematic. It's setting, a convent where technology is abandoned and the women present serve under a bearded priest they must treat like both a spokesman for their god, but also a father. Already, things are uncomfortable. Alina, an outsider to this lifestyle, still has the buzz of the city about her when she arrives. When the film follows her and old friend Voichita up to the convent, not only are we leaving behind the traditional realm of the New Wave potboiler, we are entering the past; the days that predate the revolution. The question is who's got it worse? The answer isn't easy or fair. As Mungiu has observed before, the best way to find an answer, a solution to the predicament that is living in Romania is to stop trying to avoid the truth. Every nun seems to have left behind some dirty secret, the sort the heroines of Mungiu's first masterpiece, 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days went to great pains to erase. Alina is Voichita's, and the environment openly rejects her presence. How can they live in ignorance with a reminder of the outside world sitting next to them at breakfast. She's the past and the future in one, and she's more terrifying than the order's vision of hell. She's what they escapes from and she pays dearly for staying.

After watching an incredibly restrained movie about an incredibly repressed shared lifestyle, the film hits a point that it cannot play by its own rules. Alina has come to get Voichita, her closest (only?) friend to leave the convent that's become her home. When that doesn't work, Alina tries to work herself into the fabric of this new life. When that doesn't work, something else takes over, something between epilepsy and incurable despair. The sisters of the convent, Voichita among them, try to tie Alina down to stop her from hurting herself or anyone else. Watching them tie this girl down and being aware of every single aspect of the situation and how quickly it could be fixed, suddenly I wasn't in the film anymore, I was on that board, bound with chains and gagged and unable to tell anyone that what she needs more than any exorcism or medicine is a hug from the last person on earth she feels love for. I suppose it's lucky for me the seats around me were vacant because I sat for those six minutes thrashing and making involuntary sounds of protest in Alice Tully Hall. I might have kicked someone by accident. I can't remember ever reacting that strongly to anything else in a theatre. I was completely unable to control my reaction to that unbearable scene. It struck me after I'd recovered and lay on my bed after the screening, grinning from ear to ear as I described it to my girlfriend: THAT is the power of cinema.

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